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Reagan returning to Washington - in bronze

A 7-foot-tall likeness of the 40th president will replace Civil War era orator Thomas Starr King as one of California's two representatives in the Capitol's Statuary Hall.

April 16, 2009|Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — After 78 years of standing in the Capitol, Thomas Starr King is about to be ousted by a better known Californian -- Ronald Reagan.

In June, a bronze statue of Reagan will replace that of the relatively obscure King as one of California's two representatives in Washington's version of a national hall of fame. The Reagan likeness will be unveiled in a ceremony attended by former First Lady Nancy Reagan.

The state's other representative is Father Junipero Serra, who, like King, has been a fixture in the U.S. Capitol since Herbert Hoover was president.

While many hail the addition of the 40th president, some are nonetheless lamenting the departure of the Unitarian minister who rallied Californians to the Union side during the Civil War. The bumped sculpture will be shipped to Sacramento for display in the state Capitol.

"Those of who us who love Thomas Starr King and know about his life are really sorry to see him go," said the Rev. Roger Fritts, senior minister of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Md.

The artistic renditions of King and Serra were dedicated in 1931 in the National Statuary Hall Collection, which includes two from each state. Honorees range from the largely unknown, such as Nebraska's J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day, to such legends as Oklahoma humorist Will Rogers, whose visage faces the House of Representatives, supposedly in keeping with his famous advice to "keep an eye on Congress."

It was Congress that a few years ago voted to permit states to change their statues. Kansas was the first, swapping in a uniformed President Eisenhower to replace 19th century Gov. George W. Glick.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, which is paying for the new statue, declined to release a picture before the unveiling.

But according to the sculptor, Chas Fagan, the 500-pound statue depicts the former president in a business suit, with a slight smile but no cowboy hat. His left arm rests on a column featuring eagles and a torch, based on Reagan's references to the "torch of freedom."

Seven feet tall, it stands on a 3-foot-high marble pedestal featuring the presidential and California governor's seals. The base includes pieces of the Berlin Wall, which came down shortly after Reagan's presidency.

The North Carolina artist said he created the piece after inspecting Reagan's suits and shoes at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley and viewing videos of the former president.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) launched a campaign nearly five years ago, shortly after Reagan's death, to replace the statue of King, described as "the orator who saved the nation," with one of "The Great Communicator."

"We, of course, honor the contributions of Thomas Starr King," a bipartisan group of California lawmakers said in a letter. But by replacing King, they added, "the people of California can demonstrate to the nation and the world how much our 40th president and two-term governor meant to our state and our nation."

The state Legislature in 2006 authorized the swap, although then-state Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina Del Rey), now California's secretary of state, complained at the time that lawmakers were rushing the decision. Bowen unsuccessfully urged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to "engage Californians" in a public discussion before moving ahead.

The Reagan statue's arrival will follow the House's recent approval of legislation to establish the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission, which will plan a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Reagan's birth.

In the meantime, it's not as if King will be forgotten. Los Angeles has a Thomas Starr King Middle School. Yosemite National Park boasts Mt. Starr King. And San Francisco is home to a King statue in Golden Gate Park.

The Rev. Lindi Ramsden, executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry in California, said she hopes that King's statue will have "a place of honor" at the state Capitol so "more people will come to know of his character and profound gifts to our history and development as a state."

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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