Reagan statue knocks 19th-century Californian off his pedestal

McClatchy NewspapersMay 31, 2009 

WASHINGTON — When Nancy Reagan saw a model of her husband's statue, she complained that the late former president's pants were too long and that he looked a little too serious.

So Chas Fagan, a painter and sculptor from Charlotte, N.C., went back to work. He made the pants break above the shoe and studied videos of the president telling jokes. He settled on Ronald Reagan's expression just before the punch line, which showed a hint of a smile every time.

On Wednesday, Fagan's 7-foot statue of the nation's 40th president will be unveiled at the U.S. Capitol, replacing the likeness of a lesser-known California hero, Thomas Starr King. Nancy Reagan is expected to attend, along with Fagan.

It's the end of an era for Starr King, a 19th-century San Francisco Unitarian Universalist preacher who's received star billing at the Capitol for 78 years.

It also caps a five-year effort by California Republican Rep. Ken Calvert, who launched the campaign to remove Starr King shortly after Reagan's death on June 5, 2004.

"I thought, well, you know, he was a great person, but he's been here for a while. Maybe we can replace him with Ronald Reagan," Calvert said. "And one thing led to another. . . . We were able to get it done."

Not everyone's pleased that Reagan is being put on a pedestal, particularly the descendants of Starr King, who helped keep California in the Union during the Civil War.

"Unfortunately, people say, 'Who was Thomas Starr King?' " said Ginny King Supple, Starr King's great-great-granddaughter, from Los Angeles. "He never got the public recognition after the fact. He was very well-known back in the 1800s and early 1900s. So it is disturbing."

She voted for Reagan, but she said: "From a historical perspective, Thomas Starr King had a lot more to do with the state of the state of California, as opposed to President Reagan. I'm not coming down on Ronald Reagan. He was basically a great man in many ways, but the history of California lies with Thomas Starr King. That's why he was chosen."

Starr King gave thousands of speeches, up and down the state, railing against slavery, poverty and oppression. Even though the state had banned slavery, many Southerners who'd moved to California wanted slaves and threatened to split the state and form their own republic. Starr King corresponded with Abraham Lincoln during his speaking tour.

"More than anything, he kept California from seceding from the Union during the Civil War," King Supple said. "He was a great orator."

Thomas Starr King V, Starr King's great-great-great-grandson, said family members weren't so much troubled by the removal of the statue as by the way it was done, which they view as hasty.

During the state Legislature's debate, one California legislator said he didn't know who Starr King was, prompting Starr King V to say that the lawmaker would have been better off trying to bolster history education in the schools. He said legislators acted quickly to support the legislation, however, "so as not to appear anti-Reagan."

"If there had been a thoughtful and reflective debate on the issue, both in the Legislature and in the public forum, and Californians had decided to replace one adopted son with another in Statuary Hall, then I think everyone would have been on board," Starr King V, a psychology professor from Tampa, Fla., wrote in an e-mail. "Instead, Starr King was unceremoniously swept aside because the California Legislature hadn't done their history homework. One wonders if Reagan's statue will suffer the same fate 100 years from now."

The swap also has sparked controversy in Unitarian Universalist churches.

"We're not happy about it," said Carol Bodeau, the director of religious education at Starr King Unitarian Universalist Church in Hayward, Calif. "We have certainly been having conversations about it in our churches and in our ministers' gatherings for a long time."

Each state is allowed two statues in the Capitol. California chose Starr King and Father Junipero Serra — the Spanish Franciscan friar who founded California's missions in the late 1700s — both of whom have been on display since 1931.

Fagan said he wasn't without sympathy for Starr King and his family but that history changed and he was honored that his work was going to be displayed.

Calvert said he got the idea of honoring Reagan after noticing that Kansas had replaced a statue of Gov. George Washington Glick with a bronze of much better-known President Dwight Eisenhower. California legislators signed off on the swap in 2006.

Starr King V called it "a knee-jerk reaction" after Reagan's death.

"We don't suggest that Reagan shouldn't be honored, and no one could suggest that he hasn't been," he said. "It's just our opinion that it's possible to commemorate one without undoing the commemoration of another."

Calvert, who called Reagan his political mentor, said there was "tremendous support" for the Reagan statue.

"Look, it's not unusual for statues to be there for a while and then be rotated out," he said. "Thomas Starr King's statue has been there for some time, and I'm sure it'll be given a prestigious location somewhere here in California."

King Supple said there'd be a ceremony in Sacramento in mid- to late June, when Starr King's statue would be installed on the second floor of the rotunda at the State Capitol.

ON THE WEB

The National Statuary Hall Collection, and who's honored by individual states

The Thomas Starr King statue

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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