Jerry Davich: Curious portrait cements our explorer yearnings
JERRY DAVICH September 5, 2013 10:38PM
A Portage woman found this concrete portrait in her back yard. She'd like to learn more about it. | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 7, 2013 12:23PM
The decades-old concrete portrait resembles any number of historic characters from centuries ago, some who are fictional, others from high school textbooks.
Brenda Sumner’s late husband, Gerald, unearthed it nearly 20 years ago in the backyard of the couple’s Portage home. It was buried by weeds, brush and abandonment.
“The tip of his shovel just happened to hit the corner of it,” Brenda explained while showing me the unusual concrete artwork. “We never knew what it was, why it was here or who it is. Maybe William Shakespeare? No one knows.”
Regardless, Gerald cleaned it up and hung it on the back outside wall of the small guesthouse on their property. It’s located on the west side of the city, near Dombey Road. The concrete image has been there ever since, facing an empty backyard and an even emptier explanation of its origin.
I took photos of it, shared it on social media and also with two local historical museums, asking the same question: Who is this person?
Dozens of people offered insightful comments, goofball ideas and flat-out guesses of the image’s unique yet ubiquitous identity.
“It looks like one of the European commanders that helped during the Civil War,” said Joe B.
“Vlad the Impaler!” said Jerry H.
“Looks to be related to the Knights of Columbus,” said Laura J. “The style dress is similar to what they have now. (It) could have been from a hall that was torn down.”
“The high collar and facial hair indicate Victorian, possibly reflecting when it was made,” said Manda A. “However, the hat, cloak, cloak fastener and the medal indicate someone from a different era. Maybe Jacques Marquette or perhaps a voyageur — Honore Gratien Joseph Bailly de Messein (aka Joseph Bailly)?”
Cindy Ellison Badten, a local history buff, wondered, “Wasn’t the old Indian village near Dombey and Rt. 20? I had heard about a plaque that was attached to a bridge over the Little Calumet River commemorating an early explorer. This may be it.”
And on it went, one guess after another, some serious, others humorous.
“I’m pretty sure I used to date him,” quipped Catherine S.
Finally, I heard back from Kathy Heckman, who’s with the Portage Community Historical Society Archives and Genealogy.
“I think it is of LaSalle,” Heckman told me, referring to Robert de LaSalle, the 17th-century French explorer who claimed the Mississippi River basin for France.
Harry Dickson, who first told me about the “curious cast of a face,” agreed with Heckman.
Heckman then spoke to Brenda Sumner and also to the home’s previous owner, Beatrice Lightfoot, who still lives in the region.
Heckman shared a photo of the image with Lightfoot, who was pleased to hear the concrete artwork is still in existence.
I then called Lightfoot for more clues to this evolving mystery. She told me that her parents used to own a hotel in Gary and this concrete artwork once adorned that hotel.
“Everybody was doing that sort of thing with hotels in the 1930s, at least in Gary,” she told me.
When Lightfoot moved from the Portage home, she couldn’t lug it around anymore, so she left it there.
“I always figured it was long buried and forgotten,” she said.
So whose facial identity is cast in the concrete adornment?
“It’s nobody important or nobody in particular that I know of,” she told me. “Just a face.”
Brenda Sumner had quiet dreams it was a rare relic that could produce a handsome windfall. Historians hoped it would be another piece of the puzzle from the Calumet Region’s murky beginnings. Casual observers enjoyed the mystery of it all.
But, as Lightfoot matter-of-factly noted, maybe it’s just a face. Nothing more.
Sometimes life reflects art. Other times art reflects life.
In the case of this backyard mystery, maybe it simply reflects our primal yearning to be an explorer of sorts in the 21st century, at least at face value.
The caller sounded overly confident on her voice mail to me, as if she actually knew my stance regarding the controversial Affordable Care Act under the Obama administration.
“You DO realize it’s the wonderful ObamaCare that YOU love so much that’s threatening to close these dialysis clinics? Yeah, ObamaCare. This is just the beginning,” she said curtly before hanging up.
It didn’t matter that I’ve yet to write about this issue. It didn’t matter that I’ve yet to reveal my opinions on ObamaCare. It didn’t matter that I have purposely waited for more information and future outcomes before writing on this touchy issue.
All that mattered to her, and to many other critics, is that I voted for Obama. Period.
Such thinking is wrong and it only inflames the political fires that already burn out of control on their own in America the Blameful.
Tow truck parade
On Friday evening around dusk, there will be a “wrecker parade” — yes, you read that correctly — starting at the Radisson Hotel in Merrillville and traveling to Crown Point via Broadway and U.S. 231 before circling back.
The parade jump-starts the Indiana Towing & Wrecker Association’s annual trade show at the Radisson, which continues through the weekend, I’m told.
“It’s a spectacle to see if you’ve never seen one,” said Holly Rodino Breese, who owns Republic Frame & Axle in Gary. “Last year there were over 70 trucks in the parade.”
I can’t imagine what a wrecker parade looks like, so I’ll be there out of curiosity if nothing else. If your family missed the Labor Day parades, tell the kiddies this is the next best thing. Maybe the parade participants will throw nuts and bolts at you.
Culling the herd
Ariel Castro, convicted of kidnapping and raping three women for a decade in his Cleveland home, hanged himself in his jail cell on Tuesday night. Sometimes our human herd needs to be culled and he saved us the expense, the court trial and the media circus. Good riddance, I say.
Connect with Jerry via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.