“ON MY MODEL FOR THE STATUE, I have endeavored to express that through these great virtues — imagination, courage, integrity and faith — that the wilderness has been overcome and that the highest peak has been climbed.” – so said Donald De Lue, sculptor of the Mountaineer Statue.
What is now an enduring symbol of the spirit of West Virginia University stands 50 years after its creation outside the Mountainlair — after more than 20 years of planning and being nearly derailed multiple times by controversy and other obstacles. The twists and turns of the story are documented in “The Mountaineer Statue,” by Gordon Thorn, BSA ’53, MSA ’55 and Scott Rubin, BS ’05.
The original idea for the statue was first floated in September 1938 — envisioned as a piece with a lamp to be lit annually in memory of graduates who had died. Largely because of World War II, the idea for a statue was dropped and did not resurface until February 1950 when future West Virginia Governor Arch Moore, a law student at the time, suggested a statue for the top of the new downtown library addition, marking the official start of what became known as the Mountaineer Statue Project, which was ultimately a gift from the Mountain Honorary.
After a couple of unsuccessful attempts at selecting an artist, Donald De Lue was chosen as the sculptor in the 1960s. De Lue’s other works include “The Rocket Thrower” for the 1964 World’s Fair, “Washington Praying” located at Valley Forge, the Confederate memorials at Gettysburg for Mississippi and Louisiana, and the Boy Scout Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Mountaineer Statue is reflective of De Lue’s style, and there was no model for the piece, despite persistent rumors that Jerry West was inspiration for the artwork. After fundraising efforts slowed, De Lue downsized original plans and the base from 11.5 feet to 8.5 feet and eliminated elements like an eagle and a granite base.
The artist advocated for a location he spotted during an early campus visit in the grassy area left of the entrance to the in-development Mountainlair. However, up until spring 1971, the piece was expected to be located inside the Mountainlair, an idea Ed Reynolds, the Mountainlair director, opposed because of safety and fire regulation concerns.
It was not until September 1971, not long before the dedication ceremony, when the current location outside at the front of the Mountainlair was finalized. Then-Governor Arch Moore, BS ’48, JD ’51, helped dedicate the Mountaineer Statue in October 1971.
WVU President Irvin Stewart, who served from 1946 to 1958, had a vision for the statue that came true: A central icon to help promote a positive image of the school and the state.
“He holds the future of West Virginia. In that future, there is no place for the easy acceptance of the idea that an inferior result should be accepted because that is all one may expect from West Virginia,” Stewart said.
“In its place, there will be the determination of the pioneer who made his living from sometimes uncompromising land. It will be a determination to be content with nothing less than the best, accompanied by the realization that is within reach.”
MOUNTAINEER STATUE AT-A-GLANCE
• Projected cost in 1950: $10,000.
• Total cost: $23,000 ($157,075 in today’s dollars).
• Participants: Four University presidents, four sculptors, five generations of students.
• Materials considered: Glass and stainless steel; carved, seasoned West Virginia cherry or walnut.
• Design options: A bronze statue with a man standing on a log with a rifle and axe in hand: a version with an eagle at the f eet of the figure.
• Locations considered: Behind and outside, or inside of the Mountainlair, Core Arboretum, Grumbein’s Island, in front of Oglebay Hall.
• Whiskey decanters: Prior to placement, in 1971, Ezra Brooks, a liquor company, began selling whiskey in decanters that looked like the model of the Mountaineer Statue De Lue had produced during the design phase. Despite arguments about an “inappropriate and unauthorized” use, no design infringement was determined. The decanters are now collectors’ items.
• Models and molds: Casting for the full-size statue was finished at Sheidow Bronze, located in Kingwood. The plaster mold used for the statue is today on display at the Bright Law Firm in Pr eston County. The small bronze model can be seen in the Jerry West Lounge at the WVU Coliseum. That model was stolen from the Mountainlair in the late 1960s and was later found at Bethany College in northern West Virginia. And the WVU Foundation office at One Waterfront Place houses the plaster mold for that model.
Source: “The Mountaineer Statue” by Gordon Thorn, BSA ’53, MSA ’55 and Scott Rubin, BS ’05.