Town Ambassadors: Have a Nice Day, Forever
Wander the public square in any modest-sized city, and you'll often spot a statue of a Great Man. A general, statesman, spiritual leader, or captain of industry -- perhaps elevated on a pedestal or column -- is meant to inspire, and to forever associate a town with his fame and accomplishments.
That's right, his fame and accomplishments. The municipal hero mail order catalog is missing half of its pages, as history's women might point out.
A city's connection is sometimes strained, or perfunctory. The town of George, Washington features a large bronze head of the first President, who died unaware that George, or Washington state, or the entire Pacific Northwest even existed.
America hit Peak Great Man about a century ago, and now strategic reserves are all but exhausted. Combine that with a public unwilling to wear a topcoat, clutch a roll of parchment, or even stand on the shoulders of winged maidens, and it's obvious that civic statuary has challenges.
Municipalities tried to adapt, enshrining the Pretty Good Man -- an athlete, a celebrity, or even an artist. But like the Great Man, the Pretty Good Man reputation was often only established after the subject left town. The paths of the proverbial Powerball Winner and the Winning Ticket Convenience Store cross only once, and towns seemed stuck on desperate brag-by-association and fading juju.
Enter the modern era, where a statue can pay tribute to the Affable Denizen, a familiar, even intimate, character who never left town. Less George Patton, more George Bailey. Maybe it's that guy who always slept in the shade of a Great Man statue, or spent his retirement years waving at cars. And then died.
Can the Affable Denizen, caught in a town's gravity well and making the best of it, inspire us all? Some towns seem to think so.
The early movement began in Laguna Beach, California. Since the late 1930s it had been home to Eiler Larsen, a free spirit who would greet visitors with a booming, "Helloo-oo, delighted to see you!" As a trendsetter, Larsen established the look: he resembled Johnny Appleseed, or maybe a crazy-eyed Old Testament prophet (he claimed he began greeting people in Washington, DC, where President Hoover once waved to him from a limousine). Larsen worked odd jobs at a business named the Pottery Shack, whose owners built a life-size Larsen statue in the mid-1950s and set it out by the sidewalk. The town proclaimed Larsen its official greeter in 1963, and even erected a second statue of him in 1986, years after he had died. Both statues still stand, although the original was modified slightly in the early 2000s to make Larsen appear less frightening to children.
While Larsen was winding down, Norman Lane was peaking in Silver Spring, Maryland. Lane, too, was known for once meeting a President (Lyndon Johnson), and later appeared on the TV show "Real People," where residents were asked if they would vote their homeless hero into office. Every one answered yes. He was known as the "mayor" of the town, and after he died a bronze bust of Lane was unveiled in what was rechristened Mayor Lane Memorial Alleyway, which had led to one of his favorite bars and sleeping spots. Lane is portrayed wearing his signature hard hat, along with his reassuring catchphrase, "Don't worry about it."
Town characters as statues began to broaden around the turn of the millennium. In 1997, Jim Boggio, "King of the Stomach Steinway," was immortalized playing his accordion in bronze in downtown Cotati, California, (As a vigorous local music booster, he helped found the town's annual Accordion Festival, and was acclaimed for continuing to play even after dozing off on stage). Hugh McManaway of Charlotte, North Carolina, was honored with a statue erected on the spot where, uninvited, he had directed traffic for 25 years. John Breaux was known for riding his bicycle around Louisville, Colorado, picking up trash. After he was struck and killed by a car, the town erected a bronze version of John, with accessories molded off the items found on him when he died, including his actual, bronzed bike.
John Breaux showcases the figurative hyperrealism of good-will-ambassador statues, particularly when compared to their lofty, allegory-laden counterparts. There are no stiff or 19th century sculpture-school poses on a waving guy; it's all mess and rumples and clothes that could probably use a washing. Huey Cooper, for example, is posed comfortably slouched on a stoop in Lake City, South Carolina, much as he sat in life, extending with one hand his lucky rabbit's foot. Anyone could rub it for a nickel, and anyone still can, though Huey died in 1978; his statue has a slot in its jacket pocket where luck-seeking rubbers can leave their deposits. It's as if Huey was in his favorite pose at the moment he was dipped in bronze (not really, but you know what we mean).
News accounts of ceremonial unveilings invariably feature quotes from citizens explaining why their town guy deserved such an elaborate honor (Statues are not cheap). Whatever their personal quirks -- and each character had an identifiable gimmick -- all are broadly praised as an "institution" or a "treasure," and it's always noted that they were friendly and nice to everyone. The greeter-guy becomes an allegorical creature of town virtues -- Tolerance, Kindness, Charm.
And why wouldn't you want to keep that good thing going as long as you can? Even after death, top-hat-wearing Wally "Mr. Pumpkin" Thurow can be seen next to his wacky high-wheel bicycle in Sycamore, Illinois -- because it remains a fun-loving town! Albert Kee greeted everyone to Key West, Florida, by blowing a conch shell and yelling, "Welcome to the Island!" -- he's been dead since 2003, but his statue stands in his old spot, making new friends.
The latest and perhaps most extreme expression of this new view of civic pride was unveiled in 2015 in Headland, Alabama: a large fiberglass peanut customized into a likeness of "Dancin' Dave" Whatley. Dave didn't have much to do with peanuts, but he was an icon of the town -- part of the "Peanut Capital of the World" -- where for decades he would dance, for anyone he met, wearing a white suit, white parade gloves, and a white sailor cap with the word "DAVE" on it. Dave attended the dedication of his tribute, then died two months later, his legacy secure.
An eccentric with an outgoing personality and a welcoming shtick is civic gold for a town. By eternalizing the town greeter in metal or plastic, the magic can persist. As we drive from Point A to Point B, in pursuit of the next smile, a waving guy is always worth a wave back, even if he's just a statue.
- The Greeter, 1950s - Laguna Beach, California
- The Greeter, 1980s - Laguna Beach, California
- Norman Lane, Homeless Mayor - Silver Spring, Maryland
- Jim Boggio, Accordion Master - Cotati, California
- Hugh McManaway, Old Man Traffic - Charlotte, North Carolina
- John Breaux, Bicycle Trash Collector - Louisville, Colorado
- Huey Cooper, Lucky Rub - Lake City, South Carolina
- Wally "Mr. Pumpkin" Thurow - Charlotte, North Carolina
- Albert Kee, Conch Blower - Key West, Florida
- "Dancin' Dave" Whatley - Headland, Alabama
Story by Doug Kirby and Ken Smith. Originally appeared in The American Bystander, Issue #2, 2016. It's a printed comedy quarterly! Order yours now at Indiegogo.