By Randy Fiedler
Without my walking stick, I’d go insane
I can’t look my best, I feel undressed without my cane.
Must have my walking stick ’cause it may rain
When it pours can’t be outdoors without my cane.
“My Walking Stick” by Irving Berlin, ©Imagem U.S. LLC
If you’ve ever walked across the Baylor University campus, there’s a good chance you’ve passed through Burleson Quadrangle, which features the large statue of Dr. Rufus Columbus Burleson (1823-1901). He’s the only person to have been president of Baylor both on the original campus in Independence and on the current campus in Waco. The statue, created by the renowned sculptor Pompeo Coppini (the same man who crafted the statue of Judge R.E.B. Baylor on Founders Mall), was funded by friends of Burleson after his death and was unveiled on June 7, 1905.
From my second-floor office in Burleson Hall (named for Rufus Burleson’s wife Georgia), I see the backside of this statue every single work day. I’ve seen it bombed by grackles, drenched in rain, dusted with snow, festooned with balloons and occasionally violated with pink paint by the Noze Brotherhood. I like to think that in some small way, I am keeping an eye on ol’ Rufus as he maintains his silent vigil over the Quad.
So, my curiosity was piqued one afternoon last December when I saw what I thought were sparks and flames dancing off the statue. Upon closer examination, I noticed that a ladder had been leaned up against the base, and a workman with a welding torch was busy on Burleson’s right side. When I went outside and walked up to get a closer look, here’s what I saw:
From down on the ground, I couldn’t quite tell just what the purpose of all the welding was, so I went back a bit later after the workman was finished and saw this:
Now, if you haven’t seen the Burleson statue as many times as I have, this scene might have seemed quite normal to you. But I knew instantly that something wasn’t right. What had been altered? And then it came to me — the metallic Rufus Burleson I had passed by for the previous 27 years at Baylor had always carried his coat and top hat with his right arm, but HE DID NOT HAVE A CANE. At least, he didn’t USED to have a cane — and now, he most certainly did.
To make sure my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me, I went back to my office and checked the Baylor website for old photos of the Burleson statue. And I was right — they showed it without a cane.
When I enlarged one of these photos, I could see clearly what appeared to be the head of a broken walking stick clutched in Burleson’s right hand.
Now I was really curious. After all these years (decades?) of R.C.B.’s cane-lessness, what possessed a welder to climb up a ladder a few weeks before Christmas and stick one back on? I decided to find out.
I made a few inquiries and soon discovered the man who could solve this mystery for me — Gary Emmons, the operations manager for facilities services and higher education for Aramark, the company Baylor contracts with to provide services such as maintaining statues.
“You’re absolutely right,” he told me. “We have installed a new cane on the Burleson statue.”
Emmons said that in 2014, Aramark embarked on a campus-wide effort to check every single statue on campus, and hired a company — Deep in the Heart Foundry out of Bastrop — to look at the statues and advise what repairs might be needed.
“This was spurred on by the fact that the RG III statue at McLane Stadium had been vandalized by being spray-painted purple,” Emmons said. “Deep in the Heart Foundry is generally considered one of the top bronze sculptors in Texas, and we had them come down and make sure we recovered the RG III statue appropriately.”
The campus-wide statue review that the company performed in 2014 has been done periodically at Baylor.
“First, we ascertain each statue’s overall condition — if there has been any damage or if anything needs to be repaired,” Emmons said. “And from time to time, based on the condition, regardless of whether physical repairs have to be made, we’ll do a cleaning. That involves stripping the brass down and then reapplying the correct patina to make sure that our statues are maintained properly and look good.”
When the crew from Deep in the Heart examined the 112-year-old Burleson statue, they soon discovered that one of its distinctive elements was missing.
“After they started giving the Burleson statue the once-over, they found that there appeared to be a cane missing from his hand. They knew this because up close they could see where it had broken off, but a small top portion of the cane was still present above his hand,” Emmons said. “I can almost guarantee you that somewhere along the years, due to the position of the cane, people who were looking for a great photo opportunity probably made a grab for the bottom of that cane to climb up the statue. I’m sure that over the years, one too many pulls pulled it off. We don’t think it was vandalism, but it must have happened decades ago because no one we talked to even had a recollection or a realization that the statue was missing a cane.”
Indeed, when Emmons contacted officials at Baylor’s Texas Collection to try and find out if there were photos in the archive of the Burleson statue showing the cane intact, the photo they were able to find for Emmons was the one shown below, which was taken at least 60 years ago by legendary Waco photographer Fred Gildersleeve, who died in 1958:
But the missing cane proved to be just the starting point — there were other repairs that needed to be made to the statue. Burleson’s metal top hat, which was originally riveted in place, was loose and could be pulled completely off with continued tugging. There was a four-inch-long crack where the right arm meets the jacket, and there was a hole the size of a half dollar in the back right leg. In addition, there was a 20-inch-long crack on the left side waist jacket, a five-inch crack on the right side above the jacket and a four-to-five-inch crack on the bicep of the left arm.
The crew from Deep in the Heart told Emmons that they were impressed with the way that Pompeo Coppini created the statue back in the early 1900s.
“They said they were really surprised with the style in which it was manufactured –– it’s what you would call old world artistry, done by an artist and master craftsman,” Emmons said. “It was made in the old way. It was cast in pieces, and all the pieces — an arm, a torso — were made separately and then (Coppini) would braze and rivet them together. That’s not how they do it now. Now, it’s made all out of one solid piece, and they do more of what we would call sculpting.”
The repair crew came back out to Baylor and made measurements of the statue, then went back to the foundry in Bastrop and used the photo supplied by The Texas Collection to fabricate a cane and other new parts.
“There were no original design documents to be found, and obviously we know that since it was built in 1905 the original artist was no longer available to us to reach out to,” Emmons said. “We just replicated it as close as we could from the photographic evidence we had available.”
So that’s the story of how Rufus Burleson had his long-lost walking stick returned to him — something Emmons is glad to have played a part in.
“It was kind of a neat discovery, and getting to do things like that from my perspective is neat as well,” he said. “We put something back the way it was, and I know that statue will remain that way for years to come.”
The Fred Gildersleeve photo is used courtesy of The Texas Collection at Baylor University. Other photos are courtesy of Baylor Marketing & Communications and Randy Fiedler, Baylor University College of Arts & Sciences.