West Liberty doughboy statue, destroyed by tornado, to be restored

dmoore@herald-leader.comJuly 8, 2012 

MOREHEAD — A torso was bound together and upside down. Legs, severed at the knees, stood upright. And a head rested on a table next to a chunk of a rifle.

The pieces of weathered marble lay among the decades' worth of cast bronze and stone sculptures of Stephen Tirone's elaborate studio courtyard in Rowan County.

Tirone and fellow artist Eddie Horton have been called on to restore The Spirit of the American Doughboy, a statue that was damaged four months ago in the tornado that shredded foundations and uprooted entire hillsides in West Liberty.

That night, the statue blew off its pedestal, shattered into several pieces and was swept down Main Street.

The sculpture, designed and created by American sculptor E.M. Viquesney, became mass-produced during the 1920s to honor "doughboys," American soldiers who fought in World War I. It depicts a soldier in mid-stride, a rifle in his left hand and his right hand raised high, holding a grenade.

West Liberty's doughboy, one of 140 duplicates in 38 states, arrived in town from Italy in 1927, town historian Lynn Nickell said. It soon became a symbol of the town for many of its inhabitants.

"This was the thing," Nickell said. "Each county wanted to have a statue for the veterans of World War I."

At the tail end of this spring's storm, as rescue teams and city officials scrambled to recover as much as they could, Jamie Peyton arrived after video-recording the funnel clouds surrounding the town.

"I walked up the street in total disbelief of what was going on," Peyton said. "It just shocked me that the doughboy was gone."

A West Liberty native — and "fresh out" from Iraq, he said — Peyton immediately began inquiring about the iconic statue's whereabouts, knowing he was prioritizing the disaster differently from the first responders.

"At the time, I can understand their concerns. You know, they didn't care about the doughboy," he said. "There was other, massive destruction, but it didn't surprise me because of what went through there. Honestly, stuff like that doesn't shock me. I'm still kind of numb to that kind of stuff."

When Peyton went to check on his friend Shorty Terry, a local banker, he mentioned seeing the vacant pedestal. Terry — a "pretty thorough man," according to Peyton — started to search for the pieces.

It took weeks for Terry and search parties to rummage through the debris and salvage enough of the statue to make a restoration possible. They took the pieces to the basement of City Hall.

When images of the broken monument appeared in newspapers and on social media, it jump-started an emotional community effort to restore it.

Cindy Oakley, a retail manager, saw a picture of the fractured statue on Facebook.

"It absolutely broke my heart, as it did a lot of people, just seeing him in pieces," Oakley said. "I mean he's been there forever. For me, he's part of the town."

In the weeks after the storm, Oakley, 38, contacted Terry and obtained the remains of the statue. She then called Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley to ask permission to take the parts to an Ohio monument company that might be able to fix it.

Conley suggested that Oakley might take the statue to Stephen Tirone instead. Tirone had produced bronze sculptures in West Liberty's Veterans Memorial Park, one of six in the nation that honor women in the military.

"He did such a really good job with those," Conley said. "We know he knows what he's doing."

Sure enough, Tirone and Horton eased Oakley's fears that the statue was damaged beyond repair.

"We were very, very blessed to have had those two artists step in," Oakley said. "They gave us the good news that, yes, he was going to be able to be repaired."

Now in Tirone's studio courtyard, the shattered marble is, as Horton says, the artists' greatest challenge. The men, both veterans of the Marines and both in their 60s, have been friends for more than 30 years, since they met at Morehead State University, where Horton studied art and Tirone taught sculpture.

The statue's restoration — a combination of artistic vision, attention to detail and a passion for giving back — is a long way from being completed.

"It's a step-by-step process," Horton said. "We treat it with kindness, we go in slow motion and don't get in a big hurry. We study it as we go."

The next step is arguably the toughest one.

Tirone and Horton must finish filling the cracks and voids in the foundation and identify the "key points" that, if aligned perfectly, will allow the statue to balance properly without any slips. Then, they will ease the bulk of the 800-pound statue together with powerful resin, in hopes of creating a "perfect bond" between the legs and torso.

"This is where things happen," Tirone said of his studio. "The fact that we can handle 750 pounds of marble, Eddie can say, let's do this, and we can actually do it. Whereas other people are like, how do you make it happen?"

Horton and Tirone suggest that the restored statue stand indoors because the marble cannot continue to withstand inclement weather. Conley said the county will display it inside the new courthouse; the artists have made an offer to create a cast bronze duplicate to replace the original statue on the pedestal outdoors.

Although Morgan County has not officially accepted Tirone and Horton's offer, Conley said he would like them to do it.

To figure the exact cost of restoring the statue and possibly replacing the original, Conley is waiting to see how much the county's property insurance will cover. If there is any cost, however, he expects it to be "very minimal" because the artists donated their labor and requested payment only for the materials, Conley said.

Horton said the tornado damage in West Liberty looks "like a bomb went off," conjuring images of 1960s Vietnam for him, making it an honor and a privilege to take on the project.

"They put these monuments up to give us a little credit for what we've done," he said. "This means so much to the people of West Liberty."

When Peyton returned from Iraq in June 2008, he found new significance in the doughboy, which he didn't respect as a kid. The monument, he said, was always the center of memorials overseas.

"When you see guys go down like I have, ... it stays with me," Peyton said. "Little things to other people are huge to me."

Peyton saved the doughboy, he said, because the statue evokes an emotional connection among all war veterans.

"To go through a war like they did, and to have something as sentimental as that statue, I can only imagine what that meant to those people," he said of the World War I veterans. "It's the same military, just a different era. So it's got to mean something to me."

Daniel Moore: (859) 231-3344.Twitter: @heraldleader.

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