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Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah history for KSL.com's Historic section.SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a special reverence the Meditation Chapel brings to Memory Grove. Tucked near the edge of a glen at the center of the park, 375 N. Canyon Road, the small pink marble structure is somehow both a busy and quiet spot for a park that’s typically buzzing with families and pets throughout the year.
Inside, there are gorgeous stained glass windows representing all branches of the military and the Francesca Falk Miller poem “Immortality” is etched in gold leaf. There are scores of markers outside of the building bearing the names of the military members who died during World War II and whose bodies were never recovered.
However, its beauty hasn’t always been the case. What started as a touching gesture from two grieving parents of a fallen Utah soldier seven decades ago eventually turned into a forgotten portion of the park’s history. That changed 20 years ago, and it remains a beacon of remembering the ultimate military sacrifice to this day.
The story of the chapel begins in the 1940s. U.S. Air Force Second Lt. Ross Beason, Jr., 22, of Salt Lake City, was declared missing in action on April 15, 1944, when his aircraft was hit in battle and ditched in the Tyrrhenian Sea. His body was never recovered. In all, Beason was one of more than 300 Utahns whose bodies never returned to Utah following World War II.
His father, Ross Beason, Sr., worked in the securities business in Salt Lake City and was “a pioneer in the investment trust field” who had retired by the time his son went missing in action, according to a 1964 Associated Press article archived by the New York Times.
Beason, Sr. also moved to Los Angeles about the same time. However, he and his wife, Elvera Beason, wanted to honor his son as much as they could. They created different projects to honor their only son. They started a scholarship fund at Westminster and funded a recreation hall at the Culver Military Academy in Indiana in their son’s name and the chapel at Memory Grove.
Instead of a memorial for their son, the Beasons wanted the chapel to be a monument for all the Utah families who suffered the unimaginable like them — a way to remember all of Utah’s World War II soldiers who never received a proper burial.
According to a 1948 Deseret News report, the Beasons paid $125,000 out of pocket “to build the finest memorial possible to fighting men.” According to currency inflation calculators, that’d equate to roughly $1.3 million today.
“Anyone who has a relative born in Utah, killed in action with one of the four fighting branches, is entitled to a marker at the Meditation Chapel site,” Beason Sr. said prior to the dedication.
Elvera Beason sadly died before it was dedicated on July 25, 1948. She didn’t get a chance to see the large turnout that day. News reports from the day indicate that dedication service was a major deal. Some of the nation’s top-ranking military leaders were among the some 10,000 who attended the dedication ceremony. One of those, Air Force Gen. Carl Spaatz, spoke on behalf of President Harry Truman. Utah Gov. Herbert Maw also spoke at the event.
“The little chapel gained a soul, a tear of those high in military rank mingled with those of bereaved mothers and wives,” the Provo Daily Herald reported in a July 26, 1948, edition of the newspaper. “Peace and reverence prevailed where thousands of Utahns began assembling long before the first bugle call.”
Gold Star families — four people at a time — were given the first tour inside the chapel after the speakers concluded, according to a July 26, 1948, edition of the Deseret News. The Tabernacle Choir sang to conclude the event.
Given the fanfare that day, it’s hard to believe that the memorial wasn’t well kept over time. Ross Beason, Sr. died in 1964. By the 1970s, vandalism and neglect made the chapel less desirable.
“All the windows were broken — some by bullets — the floor was crumbling, the landscape was running wild. The city finally just boarded up the place,” the Deseret News reported in April 1999.
That same year, the Utah Heritage Foundation oversaw a $30,000 revitalization project that restored the building to its current state. That’s when the stained glass windows were installed and more than 300 granite markers with the names of fallen Utah soldiers were placed there.
In 2012, the Deseret News located Ross Beason III in Arizona. He was just 6 weeks old when his father was listed as Missing in Action.
"I've never understood people saying I was shortchanged because I didn't have a dad,” he told the newspaper. “I felt like I had one because he was always part of the conversation and he was always there in spirit. In a way, I feel like he's still here."
It’s the spirit that’s felt at the Meditation Chapel 71 years after it was first dedicated and after its renovation 20 years ago.