COLUMBIA — President Gerald Ford is back in Washington, D.C., and this time he’s here to stay.
On May 3, MU assistant professor J. Brett Grill unveiled a statue of the former commander in chief. The Gerald R. Ford Foundation in 2008 commissioned him to do the piece.
For now, there is no statue of President Richard Nixon for Grill’s creation to pardon.
The statue joins sculptures of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, James Garfield, Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan and George Washington in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
While the foundation was obtaining congressional approval for placing a statue in the White House, Grill was preparing for the monumental task of sculpting an artwork that would stand in a city full of sculptures depicting the nation's historical figures. He read biographies of Ford and carefully studied photographs of the 38th president.
The foundation’s chairman emeritus, Marty Allen, said Grill was the perfect choice.
“I think from the beginning when we interviewed the five finalists, it was very clear that Brett had really done his homework," Allen said. "He had grasped his feeling about President Ford, and all of us who knew President Ford knew it was right on.”
This wasn't the first time Grill had studied Ford, the only Michigan resident to occupy the White House. That’s because Grill, like Ford, grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“It’s part of the lore of the area," Grill said. "The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum is in Grand Rapids, and I had been there as a child.”
The Gerald R. Ford Foundation selected Grill after he submitted a proposal and a portfolio of his previous sculptures. Grill was honored the foundation selected him from a national pool of talent.
“Seeing the statue in place for the first time in such a grand, public setting was so humbling,” he said. “I had done a few public sculptures, but this is my biggest.”
The few public sculptures Grill had done include a bust of Ford that he created for the Boys and Girls club in La Quinta, Calif. That sculpture, Allen said, gave the selection committee “a strong working knowledge of Brett’s work.”
The bronze statue, which stands 7 feet tall, features the former president leaning slightly forward and wearing a three-piece suit. Grill said the stance was intended to “embody the idea of someone standing up to serve their country when called.”
Several Michigan politicians, including Gov. Rick Snyder, attended the unveiling. So did Steven Ford, chairman of the Ford Foundation and son of the former president. Steven Ford said he was pleased with the statue’s resemblance to his father, according to a news release from MU.
That was exactly the type of reaction Grill wanted to inspire in the Ford family, whose approval Grill said would help gauge the statue's similarity to its subject.
“The family is the toughest critic because they saw President Ford’s face on a daily basis. Being able to satisfy them was my first priority.”
Allen agreed. “Steve was a member of the selection committee, and we paid more attention to what he had to say than anyone else.”
The statue of President Ford, representing Michigan in the collection, will replace a statue of Zachariah Chandler, a former Michigan politician. That statue will be moved to the Detroit Historical Museum.
The statue of Ford will be added to the National Statuary Hall Collection, an assemblage of statues that individual states donate to celebrate their history.
A copy of Grill’s statue will be placed in front of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Grand Rapids on July 14, which would mark the late president’s 98th birthday.
Derek Smith is a senior at Columbia Independent School who participated in a one-week internship at the Missourian.