Twice broken, WWI doughboy statue now loses its home base in West Liberty

West Liberty Doughboy repaired a second time

Elliott County sculptor Sam McKinney talks about repairing West Liberty's Doughboy statue after it was damaged by a crew attempting to move it for a road widening project.
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Elliott County sculptor Sam McKinney talks about repairing West Liberty's Doughboy statue after it was damaged by a crew attempting to move it for a road widening project.

Some Morgan County veterans are upset about the removal this week of the base for a World War I doughboy statue that stood both as a memorial to soldiers and as a symbol of efforts to recover from a 2012 tornado that devastated West Liberty.

“It’s just sickening to see what they’ve done,” said Lynn Nickell, a local historian who was in the Air Force during the Korean War.

Workers had removed the statue from the base this past spring so it wouldn’t be damaged during a project to widen Main Street, but that process had its own problems. Workers didn’t loosen the braces at the bottom of the statue when they tried to lift it and tore it in two.

A construction crew also disassembled a monument to the town’s founders that had been at the county’s historic 1907 courthouse for decades, Nickell, 87, said Wednesday.

Some veterans thought the pedestal for the statue, which they considered part of the monument, would remain where it had been near the street for generations and that the statue would be put back on it after construction.

“We put so much hard work in there,” Norvin “Shorty” Terry, a Special Forces paratrooper from 1956 to 1965, said of the memorials. “This means something to me. The veterans that care are hurt.”

West Liberty Mayor Mark Walter, county Judge-Executive Stanley Franklin, and the head of a public-properties commission that owns the spot at the old county courthouse where the statue stood didn’t return calls to the newspaper Wednesday.

The doughboy statue was shattered into several pieces when a tornado with winds of 140 mph made a direct hit on West Liberty’s downtown in March 2012, causing widespread destruction.

The tornado killed six people as it cut a swath through the county.

The 800-pound doughboy statue, carved from white marble by artisans in Italy, was installed on a pyramidal base in front of the county courthouse in 1927.

Towns across the United States raised similar doughboy monuments to soldiers who served in World War I, but West Liberty’s is thought to be one of a handful carved from stone.

It took weeks to find the pieces of the statue among the rubble from the tornado, but residents were determined to see it restored.

Morehead sculptors Steve Tirone and Eddie Horton pieced the statue together at Tirone’s studio.

When the statue was reinstalled on the pedestal two years after the tornado hit, many people saw it as a symbolic milestone in the recovery effort.

“It was an icon of Morgan County,” said Nickell, the historian.

The project to widen Main Street in front of the old courthouse also is a part of the rebuilding process.

The state Transportation Cabinet paid for the work to remove the statue so it wouldn’t be damaged by construction, but the properties commission that owns the courthouse chose who would do the work, said H.B. Elkins, a spokesman for the Transportation Cabinet.

The local commission “determined that they did not want to reuse the pedestal and would build a new one, so the pedestal was removed under our direction,” Elkins said.

Elkins said the cabinet has been in frequent communication with local officials and concerned residents about the issue.

The statue is again being repaired and the state has agreed to pay that cost as well if it exceeds what it has already paid the commission, Elkins said.

Nickell said he understood the need to move the statue temporarily, but he doesn’t think there was any reason to take out the pedestal.

Nickell provided a January 2016 letter from a Transportation Cabinet engineer to the head of the Kentucky Heritage Council that said the proposed construction activities “do not require the removal of the existing base” for the doughboy.

He and others wanted the doughboy returned to the original pedestal where it had stood for nearly 90 years.

Now, “that prominent place is gone,” he said.

Elkins said the properties commission can decide to put the doughboy back on the same spot where it was or at another spot.

The widened Main Street might be seen as progress, Nickell said, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of history.

“That isn’t progress when you destroy historical things,” he said.