Employees: six full-time, four part-time
806 S. Hancock Ave.
A granite memorial to the people who lost their lives during the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, stands on the grounds of the Air Force Academy. It’s striking both for its simplicity and its elegance — the two granite towers on a marble pentagon, held together by a beam from the World Trade Center.
And it’s just one of the thousands of memorials that Dick Wilhelm has created in the decades since he took over his parents’ business.
Wilhelm Monuments still carves grave markers from granite and marble for the area’s cemeteries, just as Dick’s parents did. But he’s taken the family business a step further and now works to create memorials for parks, update local statues and make granite signs for housing developments and schools.
The company is the oldest stone-and-marble memorial business in Colorado Springs, started in the 1950s by Richard Sr. (he was known as Bud) and Marie. Their memorial — two red granite towers connected by a marble bench, with their names engraved on the stone — is in Evergreen Cemetery, just down the street from the business they created.
Wilhelm relies on satisfied customers and word-of-mouth as his main means of marketing, and has changed little about the methods he uses in his business, preferring old-fashioned, deep-cut carving on the granite, instead of the shallower, laser engraving done at some companies.
“We want it to last and last and last,” he said. “I’m not 100 percent sure that the newer methods will stand the test of time.”
Their way takes a little longer, but the quality of their work is something the Wilhelms take pride in. Dick shares an office with his wife, Judy, and the two oversee four full-time staff, with four additional part-time workers.
“It’s takes a long time to train someone to do this,” he said. “It’s really an art form. And they get quite proud of what they can accomplish for people.”
Dick and Judy say they aren’t in a hurry to finish with one customer and move on to the next. They take time to get to know their clients, working with them to create the monument the family wants.
“I really consider it a privilege to work with families and come up with a design they like,” he said. “It’s not a challenge, not at all. It’s very much an honor.”
The individual details of the monuments are a marked difference from the 1960s and 1970s, when cemeteries moved toward limitations that created uniform markers.
“It used to be that cemeteries had rules about monuments — height restrictions, size restrictions,” he said. “Some of them even required only flat monuments. But we’ve gotten away from that, and people want very individual monuments.”
That individuality might be reflected in a Bible verse or a particular epitaph. But increasingly, Wilhelm is creating images to put on grave markers — pets, favorite places, mountain vistas.
“We use a lot of technology for that,” he said, noting the company uses Google images and other drafting programs to create the images, which are then painstakingly etched onto the stone, using techniques proven over 60 years.
“And we’re quite pleased with the results. I think it gives a personal touch — and it will be there for years. That’s the thing I like best about what we do here — we’re creating something, a memorial to people.”
He’s also creating other long-lasting monuments: home address markers, granite signs for developers, and monuments for churches and schools to commemorate events.
That move was born out of necessity. In the 1980s, they watched their market share shrink as more people chose to be cremated.
“It looked like, for a while, we were going to be pushed out of business,” he said. “I think cremations went up to 40 percent of the market, so we decided if we were going to stay in business we had to diversify.”
And they did. At one time memorial grave markers made up 80 percent of their business.
Today, it’s only around half.
He’s done work for memorials at Monument Valley Park and America the Beautiful Park. He restored the etchings and granite on the Range Riders and for the statues of Winfield Scott Stratton and Spencer Penrose, all downtown. And he carved the granite for the flagpole structure at Colorado College — 22 tons’ worth.
But Wilhelm’s work also can be found outside Colorado Springs. He has created monuments for Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and the business ships special-ordered items to any destination.
“We ship all over the world,” he said. “We even sent something to American Samoa once.”
So what’s his next big project? He’s been hired to create a memorial for the soldiers who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery.
The design is finished and he’ll get started just as soon as Congress approves the memorial.
“It’s amazing to think that these things we’re creating now will still be around 100 years from now,” he says. “It’s amazing and gratifying.”