More visitors heed the call of patriotism

Tribune staff reporter

As Mt. Rushmore marks the 60th anniversary of its completion this week, the memorial has become a focal point for the swell of patriotism that has followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

The change is seen in people like Peggy Smith, 52, of Sunrise Beach, Mo., who visited the memorial last week as part of a pilgrimage she said was inspired by the attacks. "I'm ashamed it took me this long to become outwardly patriotic," said Smith, who visited the park with her 31-year-old daughter, Teresa Sample.

Even with tourism down nationwide and many would-be travelers worried about the possibility of more terrorism, the number of visitors to Mt. Rushmore was up by more than 9 percent in September after a below-average summer, Chief Ranger Mike Pflaum said.

The sputtering economy and the fear of flying that followed the attacks have not deterred those who would journey to Mt. Rushmore, a park that averages 2.6 million visitors a year, a large number considering its distance from a city. Most visitors come by car, from cities and towns within a couple of days' drive.

Though the park was closed immediately after the attacks and was not illuminated as usual that night--"We didn't want to make it stick out," Ranger Don Hart said--visitors gravitated to it after it reopened Sept. 12.

Under the New York state flag that snaps along the Avenue of Flags, an impromptu shrine began to form; visitors left small American flags, flowers and teddy bears.

The park service left the items there awhile before clearing them away, Hart said.

"Since I've worked here, I've seen every human emotion imaginable. After Sept. 11, the mood was somber the first couple of days, and then the patriotism started. The mood definitely has changed," Hart said.

For Smith, this was the second visit to Rushmore. In 1985 she came in honor of her brother, Rick Campbell, 31, a specialist in the Air Force who had recently died in a crash.

But it was the first visit for Smith's daughter, Sample.

Smith, who wore a T-shirt with an eagle's head superimposed on an American flag, said the attack had changed her perspective and the prevailing mood in the Ozarks, where she and Sample live.

"It's still a lot more somber than it used to be," Smith said. "There's just an underlying--I don't want to say fear; I don't think we're all afraid--but a sort of gun-shy quality. And we're a little nicer to our neighbors."

The sense of compassion and community nationwide seems in evidence at Mt. Rushmore, where the voices of Smith and other Americans can be heard as strangers from far-flung places talk to one another.

Presiding over them all are the enormous images of four presidents that were chiseled into the granite of the mountain by workers under the direction of sculptor Gutzon Borglum.

Park officials worry that the symbolism of the site has not been lost on those targeting the U.S.

Pflaum said they have stepped up security and staffing to guard against a possible attack.

"When I started this career in 1993, I was expecting campgrounds and campfires," said Hart, who occasionally serves as a tour guide for visitors he meets on patrol. "To end up . . . on the front line with terrorism involved is not something I had imagined."

Park officials have weathered more than their share of bomb threats and other security risks, even before Sept. 11.

In the 1970s, Native American groups twice took over the mountain to protest their plight, and once an explosive device blew out the front windows of the visitor center. In the 1980s, representatives of Greenpeace tried to unfurl a banner that read, "We, The People, Say No To Acid Rain," over the presidents' faces before rangers stopped them.

"It's a world-recognized symbol of our nation, and someone who's interested in getting a cause out there might choose Mt. Rushmore as a way to get on CNN," Pflaum said.

Hart, a former deputy sheriff and vocational agriculture instructor who grew up on a Missouri cattle farm in the Ozarks, says his wife and children worry about him more than they used to when he goes to work each morning.

"Since Sept. 11, things have been a little different," he said. "I have two kids, a girl who's 14 and a boy who's 12, and they're a little more inquisitive than they used to be. Now it's `What's going on, what happened today?'

"It used to be, `Did you see any goats or deer?'"

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