Local, state and military officials gathered at the Commons over the holidays to name the new I-781 connector road between Fort Drum and I-81 after a man known as the architect of North Post – the expansive and most contemporary portion of the installation.
Designated the Paul Cerjan Memorial Highway, the road memorializes the late Lt. Gen. Paul G. Cerjan, 10th Mountain Division (LI) assistant commander for support from 1985 to 1987. (See "Highway to the Mountain," page B3 of this issue, to read more about Cerjan's story.)
Despite a heavy snowfall, many friends and community leaders joined Cerjan’s widow, Patricia, and their three children Dec. 27 for the state’s official dedication ceremony held on post.
“This highway we memorialize today is indeed fitting for the New York native who served his state and his nation so honorably,” said Brig. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, 10th Mountain Division (LI) deputy commanding general for support. “Fort Drum, the North Country community, and now I-781 – fitting symbols of this great patriot, his life, and the woman he loved.
“Pat, know that Gen. Cerjan’s life contributions continue to improve the lives of many in the state of New York and in the 10th Mountain Division (LI),” Piatt added. “We are forever in his debt.”
The $57 million I-781 project took approximately two and a half years to complete. The state Department of Transportation opened it to traffic Dec. 6.
Winding through nearly five miles of local countryside, the highway is the largest such project in the area since I-81 was built in the 1950s, according to state DOT officials.
“Projects of this magnitude don’t just happen,” said Mark Frechette, acting DOT regional director. “They really need a dedicated team to deliver.”
Frechette said that more than just a transportation project or a military project, the new interstate was a community project.
State Assemblywoman Addie Russell said the connector road was important to not only Fort Drum as an installation but also to the North Country’s “sense of community.”
“Oftentimes, when people think of an interstate, they think of getting somewhere or through somewhere as fast as possible,” Russell said. “But I think this interstate is actually (something) that is going to bring the community even closer and allow for even more integration of our military friends and neighbors to the entire North Country region.
“It really is just a gateway to what the rest of the community has to offer.”
Cerjan, who died in 2011 at age 72, was a brigadier general in 1985, when he was tasked with transforming Fort Drum from a small reserve training center into a world-class military installation.
His design of the North Post’s large elliptical layout, with division headquarters at the center and the brigades fanned out in a half-moon on the upper perimeter, is credited with leaving the division enough room to stand up another brigade after 9/11.
"He deserved this kind of recognition," said retired Col. Mike Plummer, who served as the division's chief of staff alongside Cerjan. "The footprint that is on the ground is the personification of Paul Cerjan, and (Maj. Gen.) Bill Carpenter (then commanding general).
“But Paul was the driver,” he said. “He was an engineer, and he understood how to make things work.”
Plummer, who stayed in the area after retiring in 1991, suggested Cerjan's name to state Sen. Patty Ritchie of New York's 48th District. She sponsored the bill, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed it into law in July.
During the ceremony, former state Sen. James W. Wright, executive director of the Development Authority of the North Country, spoke on behalf of Ritchie, who could not attend the event.
“I don’t think of Paul Cerjan as a planner,” Wright said. “I know that he was involved in the design and the development. But I think of Paul Cerjan as a guy who got things done. So, like today, a little snow – that never would have been a problem around here. That just was not a hindrance.
“Hindrances were more in the form of regulations, bureaucrats, people who couldn’t deliver things on time and couldn’t get things done the way they needed to be done,” he said. “That’s the gentleman I remember.”
After his speech, Wright presented Patricia Cerjan with a plaque, signed by Ritchie the day before, containing a proclamation enacted by the New York State Senate.
Cerjan, who owns a summer cottage in Henderson Harbor, told the crowd the highway dedication was a great honor and privilege for her family.
“We left our hearts here when we left in 1987,” she said. “We kept coming back.”
She attended the ceremony with her three sons and their families: Col. Robert P. Cerjan, who serves with Special Operations Command in Tampa, along with his wife Heidi, a retired Army captain, and their children Christopher and Meghan; David Cerjan, a former captain in Army Special Forces, and his wife Amy; and Timothy Cerjan, the youngest son.
Patricia Cerjan recalled something her husband’s brother, Stephen, shared with her earlier last year, ironically, about Cerjan being a “connector.”
“Paul was a connector,” she said. “He connected people. Through his father, he learned the blessing of connecting people and having people talk to one another. And this connector road is a good way to connect the military with the civilian community.”
“Gen. Cerjan’s remarkable career improved his home state of New York, strengthened his Army and secured the nation he loved,” Piatt said.
Cerjan looked to accomplish more than the immediate readiness of a “fledgling division struggling to make a home here in the North Country,” Piatt explained, by ensuring his vision for “his beloved 10th Mountain Division (LI)” stayed relevant way into the future.
“Gen. Cerjan’s strategic vision and skills in engineering did more than build a base on time and under budget,” Piatt said. “He connected the base to the community by designing the needed infrastructure, businesses, housing and schooling to be provided by the people of the North Country.
“He did more than build an installation; he built a home,” he added.