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Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008 01:26 pm

Monumental achievement

The Volkmanns tell the story of Springfield’s distinctive statues and monuments

Springfield’s Sculptures, Monuments, and Plaques
Untitled Document It’s hot off the press, published Feb. 4 — and hot off the keys, cameras, and many footsteps of our own Carl (retired head of Lincoln Library) and Roberta (retired art consultant, State Board of Education) Volkmann. Here’s what the book is: 128 pages of what the title states, in five sections: “Where Government Leads: Illinois State Buildings,” “Where Lincoln Walked: Lincoln’s Neighborhood,” “Where Springfield Lives: Around the Town,” “Where the Future Learns: Educational Institutions,” and “Where the Past Rests: Oak Ridge Cemetery.” You can tell that the book is good by the imaginative divisions of what could have been mere cataloging. How did the couple work? Carl took most of the photos (some were donated), Roberta wrote, and both researched. A brief introduction leads each section, followed by pages of nicely arranged pictures with descriptions, explanations, and locations. The facts were carefully checked by five Springfield historians.
It would be a better book were Arcadia more than it is, a press that publishes uniform local histories under uniform formats and restrictions. Such books have value, but the limits frustrate. Roberta was allowed only 40 to 70 words per picture, and though this is essentially a picture book the pictures were also limited. Into the commentary she had to pack facts, an explanation of why the item exists, and, if she had room left over, any interesting bits — and it’s those bits we want filled out. She managed pretty well with one of my cemetery favorites: “A white marble Mattie Rayburn stands at the top of the imposing 40-foot polished Scotch granite shaft, second in height . . . only to Lincoln’s tomb. Married to a charismatic itinerant pastor, Mattie’s biography is sketchy and tinged with scandal. Ironically, the inscription at the base reads, ‘What God has joined together let not man put asunder.’ Bishop Rayburn is buried somewhere in Europe.” There’s not room to quote Bishop Rayburn, who said that he’d placed his second wife high up so she could look down on those who had looked down on her in life. There’s additional info, too, on the “receiving tomb” where Lincoln’s body lay for nearly seven months: “It was available for those who in ‘sudden bereavement’ had not chosen a lot. The fee for using the tomb was $5. Victims of smallpox or cholera were forbidden.” It’s such bits that make us hungry for more.
This project (conceived by Carl and grabbed by Arcadia) became a community effort. The Volkmanns had six months to fulfill their contract; word spread, and friends and strangers called to report unknown or humble monuments. These led the Volkmanns into places untrodden and to people the couple found stimulating to meet. I learned, talking to Carl, that he often returned repeatedly to a plaque or statue until he got a photograph suiting his exacting standards. The two were allowed access to the Willard Ice Building, containing treasures few of us are privileged to see, and we about learn state and federal laws that mandate the setting aside of a percentage of a public building’s cost for art. We see photos of the results at our schools, colleges, university, and public structures. Here’s hoping we can persuade this capable pair to continue with a book on how this one came into being and to include some spots of interest from a wider area. They discovered too late (during a scavenger hunt!) the little plaque, under a dogwood tree on the UIS campus, dedicated to the beloved dog who led a student named Myrna in her wheelchair through her college education. The book might start from there; we’ll all have suggestions.
The Volkmanns will sign books 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday, Feb. 8, at Prairie Archives; 11:30 a.m.-12:50 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12, in the Old State Capitol Rotunda; and starting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26, at Barnes & Noble.  

Jacqueline Jackson, books and poetry editor of Illinois Times, is a professor emerita of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield.