Alma Mater rededicated ahead of 85th birthday
URBANA — Thousands of miles away and across an ocean, Lorado Taft first conceived of the Alma Mater in 1882, while perfecting his skills as a classical sculptor at the famed Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.
"I think he must have been homesick. I think he must have been remembering, he must have been loving the university that gave him learning and his life's work," said Jean Taft Douglas Bandler, granddaughter of Lorado Taft.
Bandler addressed a crowd of students, alumni, faculty and staff Friday morning at a formal rededication ceremony.
After a nearly two-year absence, the beloved Alma Mater was returned to the campus in April. Friday's ceremony was a birthday party of sorts for the soon-to-be 85-year-old sculpture. There was a card people could sign and cupcakes to eat. Music Professor Ollie Watts Davis led the crowd in singing "Hail to the Orange."
Taft, the son of a failed-minister-turned-geology professor at the UI, received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the university. Bandler is the daughter of the late Emily Taft Douglas, an Illinois congresswoman, and late U.S. Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois.
Bandler described her grandfather as a "distinguished-looking man with his white hair, his moustache and his goatee."
"He was a man of joy who could turn ordinary routines into exciting events, racing me to the dining room table to my seat and letting me win. He was a calm, rational disciplinarian, quelling the tantrums of an irritated child by tossing some cold water on her and saying to me, 'That will cool you down until we can talk.'"
Taft always worked "to be a citizen to strive for equality, community and a good life for everyone," Bandler said.
She shared two quotes that her grandfather loved, one by Baruch Spinoza and the other by Teddy Roosevelt.
"This world will not be a good place for any of us to live in until we have made it a good place for all of us to live in," she said, quoting Roosevelt.
"This embracing Alma Mater, flanked by Learning and Labor, is what the University of Illinois gave to Lorado Taft. And that is what it still provides for its alumna and its students," Bandler told the crowd of several hundred gathered before the statue.
Originally dedicated on June 11, 1929, Alma Mater was removed from campus in August 2012 and sent to Conservation and Sculpture & Objects Studio in Forest Park for some conservation work. Originally scheduled to be returned to campus in May 2013, the sculpture ended up undergoing additional work due to extensive water damage and corrosion. At the ceremony Friday, conservator Andre Dajnowski provided an overview of that process, which included laser cleaning, adding a patina and replacing more than 1,000 bolts. The work occurred over a period of 20 months, and the total cost was $359,212, paid for by donations from alumni and friends to the UI's Chancellor's Fund.
"There are so many images of the University of Illinois that form the memories of our students," such as Memorial Stadium and Lincoln Hall, said Chancellor Phyllis Wise, "but I think the iconic thing that people remember is Alma."
While attending the university's presentation of the Paul H. Douglas Ethics in Government Award to retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in Washington earlier this year, Bandler said an older couple, decked out in festive orange and blue clothing, approached her with enthusiasm. She shared before and after photos of the Alma Mater with them, and they themselves posed for pictures. The man had proposed to his wife in front of Alma many years ago.
"This statue has a lot of meaning for a lot of people," Bandler said. "Her embrace evokes a welcoming, warm feeling," she said.
No matter what university presidents, chancellors or deans might like to think about how students will remember their speeches during graduation, what many students remember is coming to the statue and having their photographs taken there with Alma, Wise said.
"It was a long 18 months that went by without them, but 18 months that will ensure that these family members are standing proudly over the university for generations to come," Wise said.