As mourners assembled Wednesday for the 20th annual services commemorating the Jonestown tragedy, a Los Angeles business executive pledged funds for a long-sought memorial wall to be inscribed with the names and ages of more than 900 victims of the mass murders and suicides in Guyana.
Almost 150 people gathered for the three-hour service, including dozens of Jonestown survivors and ex-members. Children of slain Rep. Leo Ryan and the man who had him killed, the Rev. Jim Jones, attended too--and embraced before the ceremonies.
For years, the service organizers have tried unsuccessfully to raise an estimated $35,000 to erect a Vietnam memorial-style wall in Evergreen Cemetery, where the unidentified or unclaimed bodies of 409 Peoples Temple members are buried in a mass grave.
“Now we can see the wall, our dream, becoming a reality,” said Jynona Norwood, an Inglewood evangelist who puts on the services and lost 27 relatives. “I feel wonderful.”
On Wednesday, Liz M. Aguirre, president of Ultraseal International, hand-delivered a $5,000 check to Norwood and challenged other businesses to match it. She also pledged a share of future proceeds from her $3 million-a-year tire sealant manufacturing company.
Aguirre said she was moved to make the donation by a Times story Saturday about the people whose lives have been torn apart by the murders and mass suicides orchestrated by Jones.
“It brought tears to my eyes. I’ll make sure this wall goes up,” said the 64-year-old businesswoman and former country singer. “All these people died [in Guyana], and everyone should know who they are.”
Poet Maya Angelou has agreed to write a dedication for the proposed 20-foot-long wall, which would consist of three black granite panels with the names of victims.
On Nov. 18, 1978, Jones led 913 followers in a death rite in Jonestown, the temple’s South American agricultural commune, after ordering members to attack Ryan’s party at a nearby airstrip. Ryan had gone to Jonestown to check on the well-being of the inhabitants, and more than a dozen members chose to leave with him.
Temple gunmen killed Ryan, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, NBC newsmen Don Harris and Bob Brown, and a defector.
Their names also would be included on the wall, which has been sought for years by Norwood and her uncle, Fred Lewis of San Francisco, who lost his wife, seven children and 19 other relatives.
Healing and remembering were the themes of the ceremony, the best-attended in 20 years. Two of Jones’ sons, Stephan and Jim Jr., were present, along with three of Ryan’s children--Patricia, Patrick and Erin.
In an impassioned speech, Stephan Jones, now 39, closed his eyes and called out the names of many departed loved ones, then said: “They’ve been here waiting on us to remember them fully, [to] remember their beauty and remember their frailties. These people were too good and powerful to call victims.”