By Sam McDonald

It didn’t seem life changing at the time, just a scene from an otherwise ordinary high school field trip.

Taking a stroll around downtown Norfolk, a 16-year-old Michael Rickelton from Charlotte, N.C., discovered something that would percolate through his brain for decades, the Armed Forces Memorial at Town Point Park.

It was an unusual, low-altitude memorial. Letters — cast in bronze — affixed to paving stones near the Elizabeth River, strewn about as if scattered by the wind. The memorial’s letters were penned to loved ones by members of the U.S. armed forces who never returned from war.

“What struck me was the language, and the sentiment,” recalled Rickelton, who today is an acclaimed composer living in Baltimore. “In a lot of ways, many of these letters could have been written at any time in the 250 years that they span. They were written so far apart, yet they all live in a similar voice.”

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Composer Michael Rickelton’s “Norfolk Letters” is a suite of songs and piano pieces that will eventually include more than 30 elements. Image courtesy of Michael Rickelton.

Themes include optimism in the face of fear. Loneliness. Empathy. Struggle. Hope. Worry. Determination. Patriotism.

Some 24 years after that first encounter, the composer has used words from the Norfolk memorial to create something new:  A musical suite exploring emotions connected to duty, sacrifice and loss.

On Monday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m. the world premiere of “Norfolk Letters” will take place at Old Dominion University’s Chandler Recital Hall. Ross Tamaccio, a baritone, will sing text taken directly from the letters. He’ll be accompanied by Hsiao-Ying Lin on piano.

“We are honored and excited to be part of presenting this unique work,” said ODU’s executive director for the arts, Dr. Cullen Strawn. “Thanks to the vision of Norfolk Arts in facilitating the heartrending memorial, and of Michael Rickelton in creating the songs, we can sit with one of life’s most complex topics and experience a journey through personal communication, sculpture, composition, and performance.”

A letter in the memorial written by Quincy Sharpe Mills when he was serving in France in 1918 hit Rickelton hard.

To his mother, Mills wrote, “Even the trenches can be beautiful when they are trimmed with flowers, and the barbed wire forms a trellis for rambling vines and shelter for innumerable thrushes and other songsters.”

Rickelton said one way to interpret that message is, “I’m here in this horrible place, but let me paint a picture for Mom back home so she doesn’t worry.”

The memorial’s letter writers came from a variety backgrounds, said Old Dominion University Associate Professor of History Timothy Orr.

Meyer Davis, Jr. was a Jewish sailor killed when USS Buck (DD-420) was sunk by a German submarine during World War II. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman was a woman who disguised herself as a man and served as a private in the 153rd New York Infantry during the Civil War. First Sergeant Robert Simmons was a Black Bermudian who served in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment that attacked Battery Wagner on July 18, 1863, and inspired the hit movie, “Glory.”

The personal stories in the letters resonate here even if they don’t all have a direct connection to Norfolk and the surrounding region.

“While the memorial isn't specifically meant to honor the Hampton Roads community, it does reflect our region’s unique connection to the armed forces,” Orr wrote.  “Far more than the generals and admirals, the fighting men and women — the ordinary grunts, jack tars, and jarheads — seem to hold a special place in our hearts.”

Norfolk’s Armed Forces Memorial was installed in the summer of 1998. It was created by artist Maggie Smith and architect James Cutler, both from Bainbridge Island, Washington. It was expanded to include two new letters in 2020.

Rickelton sees “Norfolk Letters,” as an evolving project. The ODU concert will present the first five elements of what will eventually be a set of more than 30 — 22 songs and around 10 piano pieces. “That will take some time to get together,” the composer said.

Fortunately, help is on the way. With collaborators, he’s launched a consortium to encourage group participation. “The idea is to bring in folks who will become partners in the composition,” Rickelton said. “We’re inviting different singers and pianists and song enthusiasts to be part of it.”

Rickelton hopes to complete Book One — made up of 10 songs and four piano pieces focused on letters from 1776 to 1918 — over the next year. Once Book Two is completed, the entire set will be as much as two-and-a-half hours of music.

He’s not sure why the memorial lodged itself so firmly in his mind. While his grandfather served in World War II, he doesn’t have other strong personal connections to the military.

Remembering that first encounter, an adult Rickelton would occasionally stop by downtown Norfolk when driving his family to and from North Carolina’s Outer Banks. During one of those stops, in 2016, the idea of writing music to accompany the letters struck him. Later, when brainstorming possible collaborative ideas with his vocalist friend Ross Tamaccio, he pitched the concept. The idea snowballed from there.

“I think it’s just a feeling of admiration, respect and appreciation that people made decisions that affected their lives and the lives of their loved ones as well,” he said. “The selflessness of service is, I think, really what attracts me to these letters and issues surrounding military service.”

He sees the memorial as both a tribute to those who died in service and the family members who experienced deep personal loss.

“I hope the songs serve the same purpose as the memorial and allow those words to be experienced in a different way,” Rickelton said.


The F. Ludwig Diehn Concert Series 2023-24 presents the premiere of “Norfolk Letters”

What: The Armed Forces Memorial in Norfolk commemorates the lives of all those who died serving their nation in times of war. The 22 bronze cast letters penned by fallen soldiers that live on in downtown Norfolk will be heard in new musical settings for voice and piano by composer Michael Rickelton.

Who: Performing the new compositions will be baritone Ross Tamaccio and pianist Hsiao-Ying Lin.

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, February 26, 2024

Where: Chandler Recital Hall, Diehn Center for the Performing Arts, Old Dominion University

Tickets: $15 for general public, $5 ODU students, $10 ODU faculty and staff and groups of 10 or more. Available from