John Lajba has grown accustomed to having Lady Liberty loom over him while he works in his downtown Omaha studio.
Still, the sculptor would rather see the weathered 9-foot copper statue depart his studio shelf – its home for the past 30 years – and be moved back where it belongs.
“It’s been on a high shelf in my studio out of the way, out of sight and out of people’s memories for too long,” Lajba said.
He might get his wish.
Momentum appears to be building to restore and return the statue to its pedestal in Omaha’s Turner Park, where it once was a target for vandals and mischief makers.
Dedicated in 1951, the statue was a gift from the Omaha Boy Scouts Covered Wagon Council – one of hundreds paid for by local scouts across the country to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Boy Scouts of America.
The statues, each tabbed a “Little Sister of Liberty,” were manufactured in Chicago, weighed 200 pounds and carried a cost of $350 plus freight. Made of hammered sheet copper soldered together, their hollow form made them susceptible to denting and other damage, Lajba said.
To put Omaha’s Little Liberty back in place would take work. The arm with the torch is missing, he said, as is her crown, and her right leg is crushed. “It’s important that she be restored using the original methods used to create her.”
Chris Mehaffey, CEO and scout executive of the Mid-America Council of the Boy Scouts of America, said he was unaware the statue still existed.
“Working with the Mid-America Council, Boy Scouts of America, we will find a way to support the refurbishment and placement of the statue back in Turner Park.”
Omaha’s Little Liberty was one of at least 15 placed in Nebraska communities in the early 1950s. All remain standing – except Omaha’s – although some have been restored or relocated within their communities.
The Scouts placed around 200 statues in communities throughout the country and several U.S. territories.
Some of those Little Liberties have lived hard lives.
The infamous 1980 tornadoes in Grand Island knocked off the spikes from Little Liberty’s crown, bent her arm and pushed her torch out of place. A hole in her breastplate allowed water in, which seeped out through rust spots. In 2013, the community raised $5,000 to restore the statue, which sits in Grand Island’s Pier Park.
“It’s holding up well,” said Don Deitemeyer, who coordinated the restoration project for the Hall County Historical Society. “I’m keeping an eye on it.”
Norfolk’s statue was one strong storm from being toppled, said Chris Amundson, who with the late Thomas Bressler led a $12,000 fundraising effort to restore its Little Liberty, which resides in the community’s Central Park. An Omaha art conservator cleaned the statue, fixed the dents and flatted the toes and chain at its base. The statue also had her crown’s missing spikes replaced.
“She’s beautiful,” Amundson said. “She’s standing proud.”
Alma’s statue is slated for relocation – 10 feet to the east – and some TLC, said Cindy Boehler, a Harlan County board member. The statue, which has a damaged hand and crown, will be restored and placed in front of the Harlan County courthouse flagpole where Boehler said “she’ll be the center of attention.”
Over the years, Alma’s statue received some rough treatment.
“She’s been climbed on,” Boehler said, noting she has a photo of one of her children doing just that. “I’m not proud of that. Still, she’s in pretty good shape for her age.”
Lincoln’s Little Liberty initially stood in Antelope Park at the corner of 27th and A streets. Zoo expansion caused two relocations, and the statue now rests in the park’s Veterans Memorial Garden.
The statue requires regular restoration attention, said Lynn Johnson, former parks and recreation director. It most recently received a new protective coating. “It had gotten to the point where the finish was pretty dull,” Johnson said. “It’s a bright and shiny copper color now.”
Statues also remain in Beatrice, Chadron, Columbus, David City, Falls City, Fremont, Gering, Hastings, North Platte and Scottsbluff.
Omaha’s statue drew a crowd for its dedication in 1951. Alfred “Bud” Root, a scout who presented the statue to the city, noted that the principles for which it stands are the answer “to all our isms and dictators,” The World-Herald reported.
James Green, past commander of Omaha’s American Legion Post No. 1, in his dedication address to 1,000 attendees, said “men’s hearts everywhere yearn for what it symbolizes.”
Omaha’s Little Liberty was mistreated in Turner Park before disappearing from public view.
The statue was reported missing in January 1974, only to reappear the following May. In November 1976, the statue was again taken from its pedestal but was returned nine months later.
The credit for its first return, according to World-Herald columnist Robert McMorris, belonged to elementary school students who were searching in the park for edible plants. The students found the statue in the bushes and carried it to the pedestal.
In 1986, then-Mayor Mike Boyle called for a new statue to be placed in Turner Park. He told The World-Herald he could raise the needed $7,000 on his own, but that wasn’t the point.
“This is something the community needs to do. It will be good for the city if we work for it.”
It didn’t happen. Ten years later, the original was moved from city storage to Lajba’s studio with the thought that someday the restored statue would be returned to Turner Park
Lajba still wants to see that happen and thinks it would make a good group project involving students, art conservationists and others. But Jim Thompson, a longtime member of the Turner Park Neighborhood Association, said he’s working independently to find financial backing to fund a new statue. The statue could be duplicated and placed in other communities, he said.
A replacement should mirror the original, Lajba said, which itself is not an identical replica of the Statue of Liberty in New York City.
The Little Liberties, for example, have less girth and their folds are slightly minimalized, Lajba said. “I’d be more than happy and honored to recreate Omaha’s Lady Liberty.”
Matt Kalcevich, director of Omaha’s Parks and Recreation Department, said he would welcome a restored statue or a replacement in Turner Park. Kalcevich, who also oversees the city’s Public Art Commission, said art adds to what parks offer.
The city doesn’t have the funds for major projects such as this one. A benefactor would be needed, he said, to return the Little Sister of Liberty to her perch in Turner Park.
Lloyd Roitzen, retired president and scout executive of the Mid-America Council, remembers when the statue was twice stolen and twice returned. Roitzen would like to see Omaha’s Little Liberty returned to its pedestal in the park.
“The statue means a lot to me,” he said. “It’s been a part of our history. No organization is more patriotic than the Boy Scouts of America.”
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