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Boston Globe Home Section

January 22, 2004

AMHERST - Last week, James E. Young was in New York for the culmination of nine months as a juror for the World Trade Center Site Memorial competition. On Wednesday, he and the 12 other jurors unveiled "Reflecting Absence."

Young's career as a self-described "memorialist" had brought him to the heart of a signature event of the still-young 21st century. The panel was charged with commemorating one of the most gut-wrenching tragedies in American history. Young helped inform the process starting soon after the fateful day.

Last Saturday, he was back in Amherst, where he moved from Manhattan in 1994. He subbed for the coach of the Rugrats, his 7-year-old son Ethan's basketball team. On Sunday, he went to a gym to play catch with Asher, 9, whose 65-mile-per-hour fastball elicits as much pride in this mild-mannered professor as does his role in marking seminal events.

"That's the real story," Young insisted, referring to Asher's floating knuckler.

Young, 52, a California native who chairs the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts, was deeply involved in a signature event of the 20th century as well. He helped shape the debate around the "Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe" now under construction in Berlin. His book, "At Memory's Edge" (Yale University Press), describes his journey from "kibitzer" and "cynic" to being one of five members on a panel tasked with concretizing the memory of the Jewish Holocaust.

The 9/11 jury, chosen last April, included a representative of the victims' families, two political appointees, artists, civic leaders, and specialists in public art. Among them was Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, and former Brown University president Vartan Gregorian, who now heads the Carnegie Corporation.

Soon after they announced the competition, 13,683 people from 94 countries registered to participate; 5,201 designs were submitted. The competition occupied an entire floor of a secret lower-

Manhattan location. Access was strictly limited and the jurors were prohibited from talking about it publicly until now.

It took two weeks of 14-hour days to winnow the submissions to 250. In September, the group culled those to a final 20.

Along the way, the jury listened to advisory councils, such as representatives of fallen firefighters, and they went into "the pit" to see what remained of the twin tower footprints. The process included e-mails, phone calls, and face-to-face discussions. It was emotional and at times upsetting.

"At some point, each of us had to get up and walk around" before coming back to the table, said Young.

Young, who pitched for a semi-professional team in Oakland while he was a graduate student at Berkeley, maintains a special connection to his sons through their mutual love of baseball. Lately, that revolves around the baseball card collection they are building. It provides a direct connection from Young's youth to his sons'. It's their way of at once preserving and creating memories.

The building of a 9/11 memorial is also part of an ongoing process, said Young: "What my kids' generation will remember of this will have to do with how history unfolds."

"What we know now is that the families of the victims deserve a place to remember their own, and that not to rebuild on the open wound would be a capitulation to the terrorists."

"Reflecting Absence," the inwardly flowing veils of water surrounded by carefully positioned stands of trees, designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, works for Young on many levels. "The water connotes life and loss, it echoes the implosion of the towers," he said, and the trees are "a symbol of resurgence" that require nurturing.

Now, Young is contemplating his next book, and said the title might be, "The Catastrophist: Confessions of a Designated Mourner." Asked what draws him to memorializing horrific events, Young said, "You'd have to ask my therapist."

More information about the design competition is at

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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