Nearly Nude Dropout Hero Monument
James Rogers McConnell got some glory out of his death -- at least for a while.
McConnell, the son of a judge, entered the University of Virginia in 1907, spent two years in the college and one at the law school, then dropped out in 1910. He was a 23-year-old frat boy, known for his drinking and bagpipe playing, Editor-in-Chief of "Corks and Curls," and King of the Hot Foot Society.
Four years later, when war broke out in Europe, McConnell was working in North Carolina for a railroad company. He decided, as he wrote in the introduction to his book, "Flying for France," that, "These sand hills will be here forever, but the war won't, so I'm going." In between writing his book, he went to France, drove an ambulance on the Western Front, received the Croix de Guerre medal for bravery, then joined the French Air Force and got shot down and killed in March 1917. And he did it all before the rest of America joined the fighting.
Within days of his death, the UVA administration decided to memorialize this impulsive adventurer as a symbol of sacrifice and idealism, a role model for apathetic students who might not otherwise be inclined to go off and fight a war. McConnell was 30 years old, a dropout, and hadn't even been at UVA for seven years, but that was overlooked. University President Edwin Alderman wrote to McConnell's father, "If he were my boy, though his broken body lies buried in a foreign land, I should be the proudest father in the world today."
Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, was hired to craft McConnell's memorial. He took so long, however, that by the time he had finished the war was over. And what he created was, well, different. He cast a 12-foot-tall bronze, modeled after Icarus of Greek mythology, and set it atop a marble pedestal. It was a muscular, nearly nude man, wearing only a jock strap and a leather helmet, teetering on the edge of miniature bronze earth. His arms had wings; his squatting, naked butt stuck out. It was not exactly the best-thought-through work of art to be placed among college students.
As memories of The Great War have faded, so has the reverence intended to be shown toward McConnell's memorial. It is now generically referred to as "The Aviator," and it has been garbed at times in a real jockstrap, hung with toilet paper, and festooned with balloons. The swim team has dressed it in a swimsuit to promote their upcoming athletic seasons. Tourists line up to take gag photos next it. This is not the kind of inspiration that President Alderman had hoped for, but one imagines that James Rogers McConnell, the King of the Hot Foot Society, would approve.