By Harry Minium

Norfolk attorney Peter G. Decker Jr. and his wife, Bess, were in Chicago in the summer of 1999 when they ventured across the city's annual "Cows on Parade" celebration.

The event consisted of hundreds of life-sized fiberglass cows painted by local artists and displayed in public spaces. The Windy City was once known for its extensive cattle stockyards.

"We should do this in Norfolk," Bess said to her husband. "With mermaids."

In the two decades since Decker proposed his wife's idea to local leaders, the mermaid has become the iconic symbol of Norfolk. Kevin Gallup, an Old Dominion University graduate, produced the initial 130 fiberglass mermaid castings that were auctioned and displayed throughout the city.

And this month, one is finally going up at Decker's beloved alma mater.

On Oct. 28, ODU will host a virtual webinar dedication of the mermaid sculpture beginning at 10 a.m.

The mermaid which will be located at Brock Commons, at West 47th Street and Monarch Way. The original dedication ceremony, planned for the spring, was postponed because of the pandemic.

From noon until 2 p.m. on Oct. 28 at Brock Commons, the Student Government Association will host a "Meet Reign the Mermaid - Claim Your Crown" event with giveaways including mermaid T-shirts and keychains. Big Blue and members of ODU's cheer and dance teams will be a part of this celebratory event. Face coverings and physical distancing are encouraged.

This project was a student initiative funded by the Student Government Association.

The idea sprung from a conversation Giovanna Genard and Lisa Jones of ODU's Strategic Communication & Marketing Department had with Ellen Neufeldt, then-vice president for Student Engagement and Enrollment Services.

Why, they wanted to know, doesn't the University have a mermaid?

Neufeldt didn't know but asked the student government leaders what they thought of the idea.

Then-SGA President Isaiah Lucas and others took over the project and played a major role in planning for the new mermaid.

Art student Brooke Benham designed ODU's mermaid based on suggestions from other students. Lucas, Shelton Chapman Jr., Jasmine English, Alexander Evans, Markell Hill, Kayla Hill-Jones, Mariah Johnson and Alyssa Shepherd served on the SGA mermaid committee.

"It's important that we have a mermaid because it symbolizes that we're a part of the city," Lucas said. "We're not just Old Dominion University, we're Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

"It will allow students, faculty and alumni to feel not only connected to the University, but also connected to the city of Norfolk."

It will also give students and visitors on campus another iconic place to take selfies and use #ODUmermaid on social media.

The mermaid will be named "Reign," as selected by students, to mirror the University's new chants of "Reign On" and "Monarchs Reign."

Artist Georgia Mason, who attended ODU and specializes in mermaid sculptures, fashioned the mermaid in the studio at her Norfolk home.

Interim Vice President of Student Engagement & Enrollment Services Don Stansberry, Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander, an ODU graduate, will provide remarks during the online dedication. So will Peter G. Decker III, an ODU graduate who serves on the University's Board of Visitors.

Decker's father, who died in 2012, was one of the region's most influential people. The son of Lebanese immigrants, Decker was raised in poverty in the Lamberts Point neighborhood just south of ODU.

After graduating from the Norfolk Division of the College of William & Mary, which eventually became ODU, he earned his law degree from William & Mary.

He founded the Decker Law Firm in 1961 and went on to become one of the most successful litigators in the region. He was honored with ODU's University Medal and was among the first donors to help raise money for the football program.

He raised more than $100 million for his favorite charity, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. Decker raised tens of millions more locally, with most of it going to children's charities.

Decker had a charismatic personality and insisted that close friends call him "Uncle Pete." Decker quietly helped those in need and often went beyond what was expected for clients.

Bill Devey, whose son, Brian Keith Devey was killed in a truck accident, went to Decker for help in getting insurance compensation.

"My wife and I didn't know what to do," Devey said.

"Pete took charge. He handled everything. He counseled us. He took care of us. He even had 100 T-shirts done that honored my son and sent them to Great Bridge High School," where his son had been a soccer star.

"He didn't have to do that," Devey said. "He did it because he cared."

Then-Norfolk Mayor Paul D. Fraim estimated that more than 4,000 people attended Decker's memorial service in downtown Norfolk, including mayors from most of the region's cites.

"Pop would be so pleased that Old Dominion University, a school that he loved so much, now has a mermaid on campus," said Peter Decker III. "He loved mermaids in part because it was mom's idea. She painted and decorated the very first mermaid 20 years ago.

"This means so very much to my entire family."

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