Remembrance and Celebration

For 28 years, Jerry Colbert ’64, the producer of the PBS holiday concerts, has honored our nation and glorified our freedom


By Rebecca Smith ’99

A capital idea

Armed with a vision—and the technical know-how—Colbert and his family moved to Washington, D.C., in the mid-70s. He produced several television documentaries for PBS, including Mr. Justice Brennan and Sister Adrian, the Mother Teresa of Scranton. Then he transitioned his skills to more patriotic productions.

In 1981, Colbert presented the first Fourth of July concert featuring the National Symphony Orchestra and guest artists performing live from the West Lawn of the United States Capitol. Nine years later, he introduced the National Memorial Day Concert. Since then, both holiday specials have become among the highest-rated performance programs on PBS.

Colbert’s nonprofit organization, Capital Concerts, Inc., manages these annual spectaculars. The group is made up of seven staff members year round, but, at concert time, that number balloons to 500. As executive producer, Colbert has immense responsibilities: He is in charge of raising money, booking stars, wooing sponsors, brainstorming concepts, managing the press, overseeing security and coordinating with government agencies.

“You have to juggle a lot of hats when you do this,” he says.

In fact, Colbert has to deal with nine unions and 22 government entities, including the Military District of Washington, the National Park Service and the Office of the Architect of the United States Capitol. He coordinates multiple law enforcement agencies and oversees the operation of 14 different cameras, including one in the Washington Monument.

Binding broken hearts

The National Memorial Day Concert is a unique program of dramatic readings, documentary footage and musical performances honoring Americans who have served our country in times of conflict. It reaches out to millions of viewers and provides an outlet for loved ones to remember, grieve and begin to heal.

“Besides the soldiers, the families and friends are casualties of war too,” Colbert explains. “We must remember their sacrifices and continue the mission set forth by Abraham Lincoln to ‘care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.’”

Colbert also draws spiritual inspiration from the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, to bind up and heal the brokenhearted, to comfort all who mourn.”

This past year’s concert, co-hosted by actors Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna, paid special tribute to the veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam and the sacred war memorials built in their honor in Washington, D.C. Actor and highly decorated World War II veteran Charles Durning was recognized for his bravery and sacrifice as part of the “greatest generation” who stepped forward in a time of need. And the valor of our newest veterans was honored as the event examined the bonds that buddies form on the battlefields of Iraq. The production featured an all-star lineup of dignitaries, actors and musical artists, including retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, USA, music legend Gladys Knight, and the National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Erich Kunzel.