Jim Heffernan column: Duluth statues appear safe from toppling
Sieur du Lhut looks a little rumpled, as though he had been sleeping in a canoe.
Statues are falling all around the country, but I think our statues in Duluth are safe. We haven’t got too many, and those we do have are pretty innocuous.
Take Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut up at the University of Minnesota Duluth. I covered the unveiling of that statue — high on a pedestal in Ordean Court on campusn — for the paper in the mid-1960s. It was a cool, crisp but beautiful autumn day. Folding chairs were set up for maybe 200 people to witness the great unveiling.
The sculptor, Frenchman Jacques Lipchitz, whose name was very hard to say out loud without blushing, actually came to Duluth for the unveiling. It was quite exciting to see this world-famous sculptor that almost nobody around here had ever actually heard of.
Then in his 70s, Lipchitz was every bit the French artistic gentlemen on his Duluth visit. I think he might even have been wearing a beret, although I might have fancifully added that to his image in my memory bank because … well … because he was a French artist. Who can imagine a male French artist without a beret?
Anyway, the great sculptor was difficult to interview because he knew very little, if any, English, and I don’t recall that they had a translator handy. I considered throwing out a few Frenchy words like “fond du lac” and “grand marais” to demonstrate my remarkable Euro-centric sophistication, but thought better of it.
As the formal program began, speeches were given by the mayor and other local dignitaries as we all listened attentively, anxiously awaiting the big moment when Jacques Lipchitz would pull the cord, the shroud covering his depiction of our city’s namesake would fall, and we could see what the French explorer looked like.
When it finally happened, applause ensued, but it seemed that many in the audience were surprised and a bit nonplussed. For one thing, everyone thought Sieur du Lhut was a lot taller than he is portrayed to be in the sculpture. And many were wondering what he was doing pointing toward Wisconsin. And was that a hot dog in his hand?
Still, it was exciting, seeing our namesake in all of his regalia, flowing garments on his body, an imposing hat, a sword on his hip. He looked a little rumpled, as though he had been sleeping in a canoe.
It was considered such an important artistic occasion that Time Magazine ran a story and photograph of the sculpture.
Several years later, chatting with a high-level UMD official about the statue, he noted that Sieur du Lhut, in the heart of the Minnesota-Duluth campus, seems to be pointing toward the University of Wisconsin Superior and saying, “Don’t ever lose a football game over there.”
I always think of that when I encounter the statue on visits to UMD. Come to think of it, I don’t think the denizens of the gridiron ever did.
But onward. Famed Viking explorer Leif Erikson is brought to life with an imposing statue in Duluth’s park that bears his name. I have heard people who know a thing or two about art maintain that, unlike Lipschitz-wrought Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut, Leif is not … well … not distinguished art.
It looks as though Leif, in his Duluth stone incarnation, is holding up his hand to block the sun from his eyes. Really, of all the great deeds of this Viking explorer (like finding America), shielding the sun from his eyes does not seem to be a signal accomplishment, but then those other Vikings never won a Super Bowl, either.
Or maybe Leif is squinting from the sun and thinking, where’s my boat?
Which brings us to bearded Jay Cooke and his collie, seated with his leg crossed over his other knee where Superior Street and London Road split up. Jay Cooke was an extremely wealthy financier from the East who was highly influential in the very founding of Duluth in the 1800s. Of course, he is blamed for causing the fabled Panic of 1873 that brought the entire country to its knees, but that doesn’t mean you can’t name a state park after him.
The Duluth Cooke statue is one of the few sculptures in existence that depicts the subject with his dog. The collie by Jay’s side is not named, unfortunately, but he or she (Lassie?) protects the statue of its master from ever being defiled in any way. Who would tear down a statue of a dog? Horses, yes, but surely not a dog.
Old Albert Woolson is brought to life with a statue showing him seated outside the Depot downtown. Woolson, 109, was the last surviving member of the Union army in the Civil War. When he died here in 1956, a massive funeral was held in the Duluth Armory, a venue better known as the place where teenage Bob Dylan (then Zimmerman) saw Buddy Holly perform his hits like “That’ll Be the Day,” presciently referring to completion of the Armory’s restoration.
That completes the list of major statues in Duluth that I can think of offhand. Oh, there’s a Roman centurion in the Civic Center and the mini Statue of Liberty down by the DECC. Very inspiring. Very patriotic. Very much resembles Elvis Presley, I’ve always felt.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.