The greatest cultural gift bestowed upon our community is the Four Freedoms Monument. Commissioned by President Roosevelt in the early days of World War II, the monument serves to honor two ideas. First, there are a unique set of values which define our nation, symbolized by the four freedoms. Second, these ideas are worth fighting and dying for as was the heroic example of Colin P. Kelly, Jr. whose name graces the pedestal of the monument.
On January 6, 1941, FDR delivered what presidential historians recently hailed as the third most important State of the Union address in our nation’s history. In this speech, Roosevelt painted a grim picture of a world at war and suggested that sooner or later, America would need to pick sides. By focusing on the freedoms that define our nation, we would know which side best represented our core values.
Eleven months later, the Japanese attacked and America entered the war. One of the war’s first casualties was Madison native Colin P. Kelly, Jr. who valiantly sacrificed his life to save his B-17 crew after attacking a Japanese warship in The Philippines. The nation was inspired by Kelly’s heroic sacrifice as was the President who proclaimed Colin Kelly our nation’s first war hero.
Roosevelt commissioned a monument to be constructed to honor both the ideals of the Four Freedoms and Captain Kelly’s sacrifice. Walter Russell created the monument which was unveiled at Madison Square Garden in 1943 to more than 60 thousand admirers. Then the monument was shipped south. It was dedicated on Flag Day, June 14, 1944 at the spot where it resides today on the corner of Base and Range Streets. Governor Spessard Holland gave the keynote address to what was likely the largest crowd to gather in Madison’s history.
Today the monument sits on a pedestal at the center of town, largely untouched since its dedication seven decades ago … and it is slowly crumbling before our eyes. The Four Freedoms Monument was not sculpted from a piece of durable North Georgia marble but rather formed from a plaster and marble ship composite. The biggest culprit to the monument’s slow disintegration is rain. You see, the monument was never designed to be placed outdoors among the elements of weather.
If nothing is done, the monument will continue to deteriorate and the four angels will eventually become unrecognizable. How long will this take? Who knows; the problem with gradual deterioration is that it is slow but always taking place. We get used to the wear and dirty color, not realizing what is happening over time.
What can be done to preserve this important and priceless treasure, the very symbol of our community? I think the answer is a structure to keep the direct rain off the monument. It would need to be architecturally designed to add rather than detract from the beauty of the monument. And in the process, it could be much more. With proper lighting, it could present an even more magnificent presence at night than it does today. We could also fix a press-to-hear speaker that would briefly tell visitors about the significance of the monument and include excerpts from the speech in Roosevelt’s own voice. We could also build a civics and history program to introduce the relevance of the monument to our school children.
How much would this project cost? I don’t really know but I shouldn’t think it would be terribly expensive. First we would raise the funds for a design which would also include a cost estimate. Once the design was approved by local authorities, we would begin fund raising to construct the structure. We might find some grant money to augment local fund raising.
It seems like a worthwhile project to protect and preserve this iconic symbol of freedom and sacrifice. Are we willing to make a modest sacrifice of time, resources and energy to honor our legacy?
Postscript: Last month, I wrote an article critical of public sector unions that stirred up some passion. That article turned out to be prescient. What you are seeing unfold in Wisconsin is literally the tip of the iceberg. One state after another has come to the realization that politicians have over promised and then kicked the can too far down the road. These public sector contracts are bankrupting the states and they simply must be reigned in — there isn’t enough money to pay the obligations.