In 2016 and 2017, a temporary craze swept the nation that advocated the destruction of statutes, monuments, and memorials that had been erected to honor an array of nationally prominent white males. Most of the mayhem was directed against those involved either with slavery or with the admittedly disgraceful treatment of Native Americans. The hit list included such slaveowners as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Indian abusers such as Andrew Jackson, and an array of Confederate generals and soldiers, most notably the venerable Robert E. Lee. Even explorers and colonizers such as Christopher Columbus and Franciscan friar Junipero Serra felt the wrath of these presentistic zealots.
Disgusted by this form of revisionist and “politically correct” historical cleansing, I wrote the following facetious commentary about my role in taking down Rhode Island’s iconic symbol—the Independent Man.
The current divisive controversy over statues and monuments has forced me to confess. I took down Rhode Island’s most famous monument–the Independent Man.
Back in the mid-seventies, I was the volunteer chairman of the Rhode Island Bicentennial of Independence Commission (ri76) and Bill Dugan was state property director. Bill came to me with a proposal to regild the Independent Man, the Gorham-built statue that had stood stoically atop the State House dome for three-quarters of a century. To undertake this project, he requested a grant from the commission. Unfortunately, the state did not fund ri76 adequately, so grant money was scarce. Fortunately, I agreed with Dugan that such a project could provide a great public spectacle, and I also realized that Dugan controlled the hiring of personnel for public buildings.
I told Bill I would back his grant request (a modest $25,000) if he would provide a job for Joe Pina, my former outfield teammate on a South Providence team that has since been called, “The Last of the Great Neighborhood Baseball Teams.” I had been privileged to be elected the captain of that team and good enough to win a spot in its otherwise Black outfield. I sometimes joke that before Brown v. Board of Education (but after Jackie Robinson), I was able to break the color barrier.
Because of our limited budget, many members of my commission were reluctant to fund the project. After some debate and much urging by me, we voted by a show of hands. The result was an 11 to 11 tie. Then, as chairman, I voted “aye” to break the tie, and the Independent Man project soon became a stunning, attention-riveting success. True to his word, Dugan made good on his promise to hire Joe for a janitorial position–a job at which he worked with diligence, dedication, and honesty for the next three decades.
To orchestrate the project, I recruited another South Providence friend, Marty Byrne, head of the Ironworkers Union, Local 37. His skilled laborers volunteered their services to remove the Man on August 9, 1975, and then transport him to the Paul King Foundry in Johnston for repair and refurbishment.
As the refurbishing process neared completion, Lloyd Bliss, the enterprising owner of the Warwick Mall, suggested that we give Rhode Islanders an up-close-look at the newly-gilded statue by putting it on display at his mall. My commission accepted this offer and devised a way that ri76 could recoup some of its funds by charging people to have their picture taken with the Man. Hundreds took advantage of this opportunity and thousands more came to view him.
This project inspired Klitzner Industries of Providence to craft Independent Man medallions and miniature statuettes. Rhode Islanders bought thousands of these souvenirs thereby spreading awareness of and raising money for our state’s celebration of independence.
Unfortunately no good deed goes unpunished. Owners of other malls and shopping centers complained that the state had given the Warwick Mall an unfair trade advantage by creating such an attraction, and they brought suit to enjoin the display. That legal challenge cut short the Man’s visit, and he was reinstalled, with some difficulty, to his lofty perch on July 20, 1976 via helicopter. The Man’s ascension was marked by a ceremony presided over by Governor Phil Noel, Adjutant General Leonard Holland, me, and my outfield mate whose hiring had sealed the deal. No one could figure out why Joe was on the stage.
By that time Joe and I were outfield mates again on the ri76 Seniors, a softball team composed of local sandlot baseball stars of the 1950s assembled to promote public awareness of the bicentennial. That team, with the Independent Man as its mascot, played ninety-three benefit games around the state, and in September 1976, won the first-ever Rhode Island senior slow-pitch softball championship.
Today the Independent Man stands like a sentinel over our seat of government. He symbolizes the spirit of independence and innovation that made Rhode Island an American leader in the development of religious liberty, the establishment of our nationhood, and the creation of our industrial economy. Thankfully he stands high enough, at 235 feet, so that anyone desiring to remove him can only do it (as I did) with great difficulty.
-Dr. Patrick T. Conley