WEST LIBERTY — One survivor of the tornado that devastated downtown West Liberty last March 2 is ready to return to duty.
It's the marble statute of a World War I doughboy that stood guard outside the old Morgan County Courthouse for about 85 years.
The twister that tore through West Liberty lifted the 800-pound statue off its pedestal, broke the doughboy into pieces and swept the pieces down Main Street. It took searchers weeks to find the remains scattered among all the other storm debris.
Morehead artists Stephen Tirone and Eddie Horton have spent months since then painstakingly putting the pieces back together and re-creating some bits that were never found. Tirone, a former Morehead State University art professor, said the doughboy now is ready to return home.
"We can never make him exactly as he was before the tornado, but he's about 99 percent complete," Tirone said recently. "There are just a few little things left to do, like a really good clean-up.
"The statue was in about in eight or nine pieces, and some other pieces were missing. So we had to resculpt the parts that were gone."
Tirone and Horton re-created the lost pieces using a modern sculptural material called 'Hydrostone" that resembles marble. Then, they stuck everything back together with a mixture of marble dust and high-tech epoxy glue to produce a finished statue.
Still, Tirone said, putting the restored sculpture back out in Kentucky's uncertain weather would be a bad idea.
"Water has a way of getting into even the tiniest hairline crack, and once it freezes, it would start to destroy all of the work we did," he said. "Both Eddie and I feel that the statue couldn't stand the weather long term with the repairs that we made."
Accordingly, Morgan County officials have developed an alternative plan.
Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley said the restored doughboy will be placed in the rotunda of the new Morgan County Judicial Center, where it will be highly visible and safe from the elements.
Meanwhile, Conley said, the county wants Tirone and Horton to create an exact copy of the original sculpture in weather-proof bronze, and that statue would be placed in the original spot in front of the old county courthouse.
The timetable for all that is somewhat unclear.
The old courthouse was extensively damaged in the tornado. The new judicial center, which was under construction at the time of the storm, also was damaged.
Renovations of both those buildings are among projects to be financed with about $30 million in grants that West Liberty is receiving to rebuild infrastructure damaged or destroyed by the tornado. Conley has said that construction on all of the projects could get started in about two months.
Depending on how rapidly the work goes, the best guess is that it could be about a year before the venerable old doughboy returns to take a place of honor in the new judicial center.
The statue was brought to West Liberty from Italy about 1927 to honor Morgan Countians who served in World War I, according to West Liberty historian Lynn Nickell. Other U.S. cities erected similar statues at the time.
Many were inspired by Spirit of the Doughboy, an original sculpture by American artist E.M. Viquesney. That statue depicted a World War I soldier walking through barbed wire, with a rifle in his left hand and his right hand raised high to throw a grenade.
U.S. infantry soldiers were informally called doughboys in World War I. That could be a reference to the rations they ate or because they were often covered in flour-like dust while fighting in the field. No one knows for sure.
About 140 doughboy statues are thought to exist today, most of them made of cast bronze. Only a handful, including West Liberty's, were carved in stone.
Jamie Peyton, a West Liberty native who had served in Iraq, was the first to notice that the statue was missing after the tornado last March 2. Peyton made sure searchers kept an eye out for it as they dug through the debris. When the broken statue turned up a few weeks later, a campaign soon got rolling to restore the old symbol of Morgan County unity.
But doing that required some extensive work.
Tirone said part of the doughboy's distinctive World War I combat helmet disappeared in the tornado, along with the stock of his Springfield rifle.
"Marble is difficult to reassemble when it's broken like that," he said. "We had to actually look at a rifle as a reference, and do some other research so that we could re-create the missing pieces."
Tirone said signs of the storm damage and the repairs will remain visible when the statue is put in place. But perhaps that is appropriate, preserving for future generations evidence of the deadly 2012 tornado.
Stories in this series
This is Day 3 in this series. See the first two at Kentucky.com/tornado:
Stories planned for this week include:
Wednesday: West Liberty's doughboy statue has been repaired.
Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.