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Thomas Jefferson’s influence on MU
extends deep into university history

Sculptor George Lundeen cast a statue in bronze as a tribute to the third president of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia.

Multimedia and text by Samantha Sunne

Sculptor George Lundeen researched Jefferson’s clothing and accessories before sculpting.
“The details are what make it fun,” he said. | Photo courtesy of George Lundeen
Sculptor George Lundeen said he wanted Jefferson sitting on a bench so that passersby would be encouraged to sit next to him. He said this interaction makes them part of the art itself. The Jefferson statue rests serenely next to MU’s Francis Quadrangle. Sculptor George Lundeen said he tried to capture the most important moment of Jefferson’s life, the moment he sat down to write the Declaration of Independence. Once the statue was brought to Columbia, MU administrative manager Dick Otto asked sculptor George Lundeen to drill holes in it so that water and snow wouldn’t collect in its crevices. Listen to audio Sculptor George Lundeen modeled his rendering of the Declaration of Independence on Jefferson’s actual handwriting. Cross-outs and corrections are visible throughout. Sculptor George Lundeen said he tried to give Jefferson a satisfied expression,
hoping the sculpture’s “Mona Lisa smile” is welcoming to passersby.
The original plaque affixed to Jefferson’s tombstone in Monticello, Va.,
now sits undisturbed in the attic of Jesse Hall.
A close look at the plaque originally affixed to Jefferson’s tombstone shows its age. John Murray, MU's assistant director of business services, said he would like to see the plaque restored and on display, but no money has been raised for that undertaking yet.

Listen | Sculptor George Lundeen attempted to capture one of the most influential moments in history with his bronze statue — when Thomas Jefferson sat down to write the Declaration of Independence.

MU has been indelibly linked to Thomas Jefferson since its founding more than 150 years ago.

In fact, Jefferson is believed to have originated the very idea of a state-supported university. When MU was established in 1839, it was modeled on Jefferson’s philosophy and architectural design for the University of Virginia.

Listen | Concerned that the statue's desk would hold water that would cause damage, MU administrative manager Dick Otto suggested a holey solution.

Listen | MU’s connection to the Jefferson statue goes back to the 1990s, when journalism professor Jim Sterling visited a Colorado ski resort.

MU was the first public university founded in the Louisiana Purchase, one of Jefferson’s legacies from his time as president. That distinction is also how Jefferson City got its name.

In 1885, MU was awarded Jefferson's tombstone from his original grave in Monticello, Va., where it had sat either ignored or vandalized for more than 50 years.

That stone now is found in front of the Residence on the Quad, where it has stood since the U.S. bicentennial in 1976. According to “The Jefferson Monument at the University of Missouri,” a book by William Peden, the monument is actually placed backward, with the original inscription on the obelisk facing the residence, not the Quad.

The original plaque on the tombstone, with an inscription written by Jefferson himself, now sits in an abandoned corner of the attic of Jesse Hall. According to John Murray, MU assistant director of business services, the original plaque was damaged more than 100 years ago in the fire at Academic Hall. Since then, no funds have been raised to restore or display the plaque.

Jefferson’s legacy in Missouri continued into the 20th century. His tombstone was an attraction at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, according to Linda L’Hote, MU’s associate vice chancellor of development.

When Virginia asked to borrow the tombstone in 1907 for the Jamestown Exhibition, MU curators refused for fear that Virginia would never return it.

Jefferson’s influence carried on into the 21st century, when his statue was installed on the Quad. The Jefferson Club, MU’s main donor society, bought the statue for $45,000.

Artist George Lundeen brought the statue to its resting place beside Jefferson’s tombstone in 2001.