Almost as soon as news broke that the Washington Monument had been damaged by a rare 5.8-magnitude earthquake in the summer of 2011, Elizabeth Reagan Bingham was collecting money from family members to help with repairs.
Why would a woman from way out in Farmers Branch, Texas, care?
It turns out that her great-great-grandfather, John H. Reagan, had been instrumental in getting the ill-fated monument finished after the Civil War, and she felt she owed it to his legacy to chip in.
As with so many things surrounding the construction and preservation of the Washington Monument, Reagan Bingham's donation holds a much deeper significance.
The monument itself -- set to reopen on May 12 -- doesn't just memorialize America's first president; it's a testament to great trials the country faced and overcame, a reminder of the politics that sometimes gets in the way of progress, and the need to bring public and private resources and talent together to build and preserve our nation's treasures.
Work on the Washington Monument began in 1848, using private funds raised by the Washington National Monument Society. Seven years later, the short-lived Know-Nothing party seized control of the society; private funding dried up and work on the monument halted for several years.
It was only after the Civil War had ended and the nation was reunited that the monument construction resumed, this time with public funds. Congressman John Reagan, a Confederate leader who advocated moderation and unity, championed the Washington Monument's completion. As much as anything else, his determination to see the work finished was emblematic of the nation's renewed and unified purpose.
Fast forward to 1996, when the Target Corporation donated $1 million and helped raise $4 million more in small individual donations to pay for a four-year restoration project.
In the same way, Target's efforts and John Reagan's great-great-granddaughter's eagerness to help pay for the repairs are a fitting tribute to the public-private partnership that launched the building of the world's tallest obelisk in the first place.
Another generous patriot came to the rescue of the earthquake-damaged monument. David Rubenstein, a man known for what he calls his passion, "patriotic philanthropy," stepped in and donated $7.5 million of his own money through the Trust for the National Mall, matching repair funds provided by the federal government.
The latest repairs are the result of a partnership between the National Park Service and the Trust for the National Mall, which is also behind a multitude of renovations and improvements designed to beautify and sustain the entire National Mall for future generations. These include educational technology, sustainable building design and infrastructure restoration, and recreational amenities for the park's 29 million annual visitors.
In an era of increasingly tight government budgets, these public-private partnerships are critical to finance needed infrastructure projects. Such partnerships are uniquely American, and give everyone an opportunity to make a difference and have a stake in a project's success, especially one so important to our common history, the National Mall.
They say that from the observation deck of the Washington Monument you can see 30 miles in each direction on a clear day. But if you look at the monument itself, you can see the entire nation -- its magnificent history, and its bright future.