WEST LIBERTY —Two years after a tornado leveled much of downtown, empty foundations still gape on Main Street, and broken trees litter the hillside above the Licking River.
But as of Saturday, a piece of West Liberty has been restored that might mean as much to people as its storefronts and churches: the World War I doughboy statue is back on his pedestal, staring west as he did before the storm knocked him flat.
"He's a symbol of West Liberty, and he's going to be a symbol of recovery," said 85-year-old Lynn Nickell, a local historian who organized an event Saturday to celebrate the doughboy's reinstallation. "I say he's going to lead the charge for the recovery."
The statue had been on that site since 1927, according to Nickell. It was one of hundreds of doughboy statues raised in towns all over the U.S. to commemorate war dead. Slang for U.S. Army soldiers in World War I, this doughboy was carved in Italy of fine white marble, which withstood more than 80 years of weather but could not endure 140 mph winds on March 2, 2012. His body was broken into pieces and strewn around the equally broken courthouse.
Morehead sculptors Steve Tirone and Eddie Horton took the shards to Tyrone's studio and pieced the statue back together. At first, it seemed the marble statue would have to live indoors and be replaced on its plinth by a bronze copy. But Tyrone said they were able to find a sealant that would protect the statue for a few years at a time. Many of his scars are still visible, a reminder for residents of the trauma they experienced.
The two sculptors, both of them veterans, wrapped the statue in a U.S. flag and bubble wrap and nailed him into a wooden crate. On Friday, they brought him back to West Liberty.
Horton said he came to West Liberty the day after the storm, and it reminded him of Vietnam after a bomb had been dropped.
"We were both very honored to take this on," he said.
"You wouldn't believe how nervous I am," Tirone said shortly before the unwrapping.
With the help of a bucket truck from the Licking Valley Rural Electric Cooperative, the doughboy was lowered onto the pedestal in front of Boy Scouts, veterans and a crowd of about 100 townspeople.
"This is a reminder of what people before us went through and their sacrifices they made for us to have the freedoms we have now," said Sgt. Chris Rice of the Morehead unit of the National Guard.
That unit spent a lot of time helping after the tornado, so several members wanted to see the doughboy ceremony.
The most conspicuous absence at Saturday's event was Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley, who has organized much of the county's recovery efforts, including the newly renovated courthouse.
He's on house arrest, facing federal fraud charges. He is accused of steering county construction — and reconstruction — contracts to a Salyersville company in exchange for kickbacks.
But both his wife and his brother spoke at the dedication, lauding his dedication to West Liberty. His brother, Jimmy, even recounted Tim Conley's birth as the 12th of 13 children, with an obligatory nod to Essie "Mommy" Conley, who watched from the crowd with other Conley siblings.
"Tim had a vision for this for years," said Jimmy Conley, referring to the restored courthouse and statue. Conley pleaded not guilty to the charges; his trial in Frankfort has been delayed until June 17.
After a rendition of Taps echoed across the square, Tirone and Horton received the folded flag that had wrapped their subject. They admitted to being a little teary.
"It was a beautiful sight to see him back up there," Horton said.
Added Tirone: "He meant an awful lot before, but he means even more now."