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With the end of global hostilities less than five years earlier, the cornerstone laying for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Memorial Stadium on June 1, 1923, was a somber affair.

"A huge service flag hung behind the stand where the stone was laid," The Lincoln Star reported at the time. "On the flag was a mass of blue stars representing the Cornhuskers who took part in the world conflict.

"And eight gold stars representing those who sacrificed their lives," the newspaper added.

Like other venues across the country, Memorial Stadium arose to honor the soldiers who fought and died in World War I, and was completed in time for an Oct. 13, 1923, shutout of the Oklahoma Sooners.

The university planned further monuments to honor those who fell during the conflict, and in 1924 hired famed sculptor and former Nebraskan Gutzon Borglum to create a relief that would adorn Memorial Stadium's main entrance.

"Just what the designs will be is not known," the Nebraska State Journal reported in July 1924. "The working out of a suitable design will be in the form of two large tablets, one dedicated to the soldiers of the Spanish-American war and the other to the soldiers of the world war."

Borglum planned to unveil the twin, 14-feet-tall monuments before a Thanksgiving day football game between Nebraska and Oregon State.

A 1924 UNL yearbook indicated the tablets had been fixed to their designated spot, bearing the names of "University of Nebraska students who made the supreme sacrifice that freedom and democracy might live."

But just what happened to the tablets over the next century has remained a mystery yet to be solved.

Two years ago, UNL began searching for the bronze tablets, scouring closets and basements of the John J. Pershing Military and Naval Science Building and the Nebraska State Museum, according to Michelle Waite, assistant to the UNL chancellor for community relations.

"We think, at least according to the yearbook, there were plaques that were put up," Waite said, adding that shadows on the columns on either side of Gate 20 make it appear that the tablets had once been there. "But we can't find them and haven't seen an actual picture of them."

After looking in every campus building where the enormous tablets could have been stored during multiple renovations of Memorial Stadium, Waite said UNL has also raised another possibility: "Did they even exist?"

Nebraska's newspapers say nothing on the subject after Aug. 31, 1924, when Borglum, who was responsible for the design of the Confederate Memorial Carving on Stone Mountain in Georgia and would go on to design Mount Rushmore, was to present his plans to the stadium committee.

In learning what it could about the stadium committee's intention, as well as what Borglum's design could have been, UNL commissioned a set of tablets intended to follow through on its promise of honoring Nebraska's "heroic dead" through Memorial Stadium, Waite said.

Paid for by Husker Athletics and crafted by Artistic Sign & Design of Omaha, the 9-feet-tall and 5-feet-wide tablets are now hanging on either side of Gate 20 as originally intended.

They were carved from 1-inch-thick, high-density urethane, the same material as the signs directing fans to their gates, as well as the original Tunnel Walk gates, according to Joe Putjenter, the company's founder.

"It is hard as a rock, but not quite as hard to carve," Putjenter said, adding high-density urethane is lightweight, yet strong. "We did not want to stress the old concrete of the building any more than necessary."

One tablet "proudly honors the 59,287 men and women from Nebraska who served in the Armed Forces during World War I," and recounts General Pershing's connection to the university, as well as his leadership during the devastating conflict.

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The second remembers the 113 university students and alumni who served in the war from April 6, 1917, to Nov. 11, 1918, when the ceasefire was signed, identified by Cathy Urban and Josh Caster by perusing university yearbooks, as well as nearly century-old files kept by the Office of the Registrar.

“When it comes to the start of a project like this, you are never sure what you are looking for or where it might live,” Caster told Nebraska Today. “Luckily, because of the good work of university archivists documenting records, it makes it easy for me to find details that can narrow a search.”

Urban told the university's news service the process for identifying the 113 Nebraska students who enrolled in classes and later participated in World War I was similar to the hunt for the names of athletic letterwinners for the Husker Hall of Fame.

"We were able to take processes from that search and apply them to the veterans project," she said.

The new plaques, which will be on display for Saturday's game against Illinois, will be dedicated Sunday during a free public ceremony scheduled at 7:45 a.m. in Memorial Stadium's east concourse.

Immediately following the ceremony, UNL will unveil its design for what Waite described as "military reflection area" that will be constructed on Memorial Mall near the Military and Naval Science Building.

Waite said UNL wants the monument to be a surprise, but said its goal is to honor service members past and present, those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, as well as those still serving.

"We want to celebrate the entire life of an individual in the service, as well as their families," she said.

Photos: Memorial Stadium through the years

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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