Helen Keller Statue Heralds New Era

Posted October 6, 2009 at 6:32pm

When Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) gave Capitol tours during his days as a Congressman, constituents were often puzzled when they arrived at the statue of former Rep. Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry (D-Ala.). Most had never heard of him.

Each state is allowed to put two statues in the Capitol, and Alabama officials chose Curry more than a century ago. Since then, Curry’s fame has faded — along with many of the 100 statues that adorn the Capitol’s halls.

Today, at an 11 a.m. ceremony in the Rotunda, Congressional officials will unveil Curry’s long-awaited replacement: a 600-pound bronze likeness of Helen Keller at age 7, when the deaf and blind Tuscumbia native made one of her first breakthroughs in learning language.

Keller is the third replacement since Congress passed a resolution in 2000 that allowed states to switch out their statues, and she’s unlikely to be the last. At least four states are working with House officials to replace one of their statues, and a few others are actively considering the switch.

Their eagerness doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Congress first began allowing states to put statues in the Capitol in 1864; they were only allowed to reconsider their choices nine years ago.

“A lot has changed, and we’ve had a lot of history since then,— said Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol. “It makes sense for states to want to move statues out for people who are more contemporary.—

But replacing the statues is a cumbersome and complex process. A state’s Legislature must first pass a resolution, which must then be signed by the governor and sent to the AOC, who then sends it to the Joint Committee on the Library for approval. Once approved, the actual work begins: finding funding, hiring a sculptor and getting approval from the JCL along the way. The sculptor also has to follow a long list of guidelines; the sculpture has to be marble or bronze, for example, and it should represent the “full length of the individual.—

Getting Helen Keller to the Capitol has taken about eight years. Much of that time was tied up in the approval process, said Joe Busta, former president of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind and co-chairman of the Helen Keller Sculpture Committee.

Artist Edward Hlavka completed the statue one year ago. Alabama officials have since been waiting for Congress to pass a resolution for the unveiling ceremony, which it finally did last week.

“It’s been a long process — longer than I anticipated it would be when I first took on the job,— Busta said, later adding: “We were at the mercy of the legislative calendar.—

Sometimes, state officials simply forget a step. Seven years ago, the governor of Missouri signed a bill to replace a statue of former Sen. Francis Preston Blair Jr. (D) with one of former President Harry Truman. Officials only realized this year the state never sent an official request to the AOC; in July, Gov. Jay Nixon (D) sent the paperwork, and officials are still awaiting approval to begin the process of finding an artist and funding for the Truman statue.

Cost can also be a stumbling block. Not only does a state have to pay for the sculpture itself — Keller’s likeness cost about $270,000 — it also has to pay for the transportation of the new statue to Washington, D.C. (and the old statue’s removal). Altogether, the Helen Keller Sculpture Committee raised about $325,000.

The finished product depicts Keller at a water pump, where she first associated the running water with the word her teacher, Anne Sullivan, traced onto her hands. The moment is one of the most famous of Keller’s life and was depicted in the movie “The Miracle Worker.—

It will be the first state statue of a child and someone with a disability, and Alabama officials hope that it becomes a destination for children at the Capitol. Curry will be moved to Samford University, which was once known as Howard College, where he served as president.

“You want someone that your state can be proud of but also that the nation can learn from,— said Todd Stacy, a spokesman for Riley, who led the effort to change the statue. “The governor and I think a lot of others could think of no one who is more fitting to Alabama.—

Keller will be placed at the entrance of the Capitol Visitor Center, where many statues were relocated because of crowding in the Capitol. Others are in the original Statuary Hall, the Hall of Columns and other random nooks and crannies throughout the Capitol.

The Rotunda is home to just five statues: former Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, James Garfield, Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan and George Washington. Tradition gives precedence to former presidents, Malecki said, though there’s no hard-and-fast rule. Still, several states want to switch out one of their statues for a president, perhaps with the hope of garnering a coveted Rotunda spot.

Kansas and California succeeded, becoming the first two states to replace their statues. Kansas installed a statue of Eisenhower in 2003, replacing one of former Gov. George Washington Glick. And in June, California replaced Thomas Starr King, a minister and orator, with Reagan.

At least two more statues of presidents are in the pipeline: Missouri’s Truman and Michigan’s Gerald Ford.

Ford, who also served as vice president and House Minority Leader, would replace former Sen. Zachariah Chandler. Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) jump-started the process soon after Ford’s death in 2006. The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation is now waiting for the Joint Committee on the Library to approve a clay model.

The foundation has been working “hand in hand— with the committee, Executive Director Joseph Calvaruso said.

“It’s a process you could probably do more quickly,— he said. “But in most cases, you just want to make sure it’s done absolutely correctly.—