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Stone Carver Taps Into a Rock-Solid Legacy

Nathen Blackwell, 82, who will inscribe Reagan's headstone, has left his mark on many areas of the presidential library.

June 10, 2004|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

The morning after Ronald Reagan died, 82-year-old stone carver Nathen Blackwell of Ventura got a wake-up call from the presidential library near Simi Valley.

Library officials were scrambling to prepare the hilltop burial site personally chosen by the nation's 40th president as his final resting place. They wanted to know how to replace a discolored bronze presidential seal mounted on a limestone wall with a black granite one Blackwell had carved.

"They wanted it up by Friday," said Blackwell, an English-born craftsman who has painstakingly cut large letters into the stone walls of the presidential library for years. "This seal will not color or change for 10,000 years. I guarantee it."

Sunday's task was the first in a series of assignments the stone carver expects in coming weeks as he helps complete the Reagan memorial, a cliff-side site where westerly views include a panoramic farm valley and the Pacific Ocean far beyond.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 16, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Stone carver -- An article about stone carver Nathen Blackwell in Thursday's California section included a photo of the wall at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library engraved with quotations by former President Reagan. The engraving in the wall shown in the photo was done by Marcel Machler in 1992.

"I'm just looking forward to doing this for such an important person," said Blackwell as he held with muscular hands a 3-pound silver-headed hammer with which he executes his most precise cuts. "Ronald Reagan was a wonderful person. I just wish we could have another president like him."

At the top of Blackwell's agenda is the carving of inscriptions on Reagan's headstone, the centerpiece of a 20-foot-wide, horseshoe-shaped memorial site where a crypt will hold the remains of Reagan and eventually his wife, Nancy. Reagan died Saturday after a long bout with Alzheimer's disease. He was 93.

The headstone, a Georgian gray granite, is stored in a library basement and will not be set until after Friday's burial, Blackwell said. At a minimum, the Reagans' names and dates of their births and deaths will be inscribed on it.

Then, sometime in the future, the curved limestone wall that defines the memorial and blocks the public's view of it, may be encased with a granite of tans and browns to protect against deterioration, said library Executive Director R. Duke Blackwood.

It will require an expert stone carver to inscribe on the new wall the quotation already cut into the old one, an excerpt from Reagan's comments when he opened the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in 1991:

"I know in my heart that man is good

That what is right will always eventually triumph

And there is purpose and worth to each and every life."

Those 28 words would probably be Blackwell's to "V-cut" into the granite in precise Roman letters, officials said.

"I would anticipate Nathen doing it," Blackwood said. "He's done amazing work. He's a true artist. I would call him an old-world craftsman."

The museum director noted how the stone carver's 25-inch granite presidential seal conforms to the curvature of the limestone wall on the public face of the memorial site. "You can see the seal on the front, there's a bow in it."

Californians discovered Blackwell not long after he moved to Santa Monica in 1958. In Hollywood, he built cabinets and fashioned stonework, before breaking through as a stone carver. Among his commissions were tombstones for starlets, scrollwork on an 18th-century bathtub for Michael Douglas' castle in Spain, an English viscount's family crest and the restoration of a 14th-century reliquary made for the remains of a Russian czar and now in the Hearst Castle at San Simeon.

Since he began working for the Reagan library about four years ago, Blackwell has chiseled names on the donor and trustee walls in the rotunda, where Reagan's casket was placed Monday and Tuesday for public viewing. Entertainer Merv Griffin and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani are two of his latest inscriptions.

Blackwell has also carved the presidential oath into granite next to a piece of the Berlin Wall displayed on an outside terrace, and this year completed the gold-lettered cornerstone of a $20-million exhibit hall unveiled in February by Nancy Reagan in honor of her husband's 93rd birthday.

Blackwell and his wife, Mildred, stood for photos with the former first lady. The stone cutter had first met her a couple of years ago when she asked to be introduced and signed a book about Reagan for him.

"I found her a very delightful, very gracious lady," Blackwell said. "I just pray she'll have good health to get her through this awful period."

Blackwell expects to meet with her again soon. "I'll have to ask her what she wants [for the headstone]," he said.

Whatever it is, he will use the same 3-, 6- and 8-pound hammers and chisels he forged from tungsten more than 60 years ago, and perhaps air-powered tools for the heavy-duty outdoor work.

"I do it by hand in the library, but outside I can use the air tools for the big letters. You need the speed."

Library director Blackwood said the stone carver is a sight to see, sitting in a special leather chair and rolling a scaffolding up and down library walls to do his work. "His patience is unbelievable," Blackwood said. "He twirls up and down and it's pick, pick, pick, pick. And it's done."

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