Jefferson well represented on Presidents Day

February 16, 2014
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
A bust of Thomas Jefferson is encased in glass on the second floor of Old Main on the campus of Washington & Jefferson College. Order a Print
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
Statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on the campus of Washington & Jefferson College Order a Print
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Photo courtesy of Ohio Department of Natural Resources
A Jefferson salamander

In a city named Washington, the county seat of Washington County, there’s a tendency, perhaps, to focus on the nation’s first president on Presidents Day.

Also, in this city and county named after George Washington, there’s a college that bears his name and that of the third president of the United States.

So 205 years after he left office, and a year in advance of the 150th anniversary of the legislative charter granting the merger that created Washington & Jefferson College, this one’s for you, T.J.

Historians produced reams of copy about Thomas Jefferson, who also wrote the Declaration of Independence and an autobiography, so this piece won’t attempt to sum up the highlights and lowlights of the founding father. Aside from the college, his name lives on in many ways. Jefferson avenues, streets, a regional hospital, schools and school districts dot the map. Greene County boasts a borough bearing his name, and northwestern Washington County has Jefferson Township. Punxsutawney Phil popped up 15 days ago at Gobbler’s Knob in Jefferson County.

There’s no evidence Jefferson set foot in this area, but let’s zero in on two Jefferson tributes with local connections. One is gargantuan, and the other is tiny and amphibian.

Anyone driving through the intersection of North Lincoln and East Beau streets in Washington can see the larger-than-life sculpture of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson by Alan Cottrill. The college dedicated its 10-foot bronze namesakes before commencement in May 2007.

They’re not far from the campus’ twin-towered Old Main, where, after climbing a spiral staircase to the second floor, one sees an older Jefferson sculpture, a plaster bust.

From the card placed inside the display case, a reader learns the Jefferson bust is the model from which the original casting moulds were made for the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.

American sculptor Rudulph Evans (1878-1960), whose first name is sometimes spelled “Rudolph,” was unable to cast the 19-foot image in bronze for the dedication of the memorial April 13, 1943, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson because of a shortage of metal during World War II.

“The plaster model from which the moulds for the castings were made was painted bronze and set in place for the dedication. The plaster model was replaced in April 1947,” the card reads.

“When the plaster model was dismantled, Evans retained the head. Later, his widow and his daughters, Mrs. Samuel C. Chew and Mrs. Joseph B. Platt, presented the head to W&J. The bust has been displayed in Old Main since 1960.”

Amy Welch, the archivist at the college’s U. Grant Miller Library, said Evans’ survivors contacted the National Sculpture Society, and that organization contacted the college.

“It’s a really neat piece to have,” Welch said. “He’s a major American sculptor and the bust is a great addition to the collection at W&J.”

Washington & Jefferson College political science department chair Joseph DiSarro sees the Jefferson bust every day he’s on campus.

“It’s right on my floor, next to my office,” DiSarro said, calling the sculpture “the most-photographed item on the campus. When kids come in to tour the college, that’s the one thing they take pictures of. I’ve been at the college 38 years. There isn’t a family or an alum who comes back and doesn’t take a picture of the bust of Jefferson. I just had some people from California, just before the holidays, that were taking pictures.

“It’s on the second floor of, I think, our most attractive building, Old Main.”

The twin towers of the building signify the joining of Washington College of Washington and Jefferson College of Canonsburg in 1865, although Old Main’s single tower stood alone until 1875.

As a political scientist, DiSarro has an appreciation of Jefferson the average person might not have of the man who was a revolutionary, statesman, diplomat and political leader. He fleshed out Jefferson’s political philosophy.

“I don’t think there’s any question that Jefferson is synonymous with democracy. We live in Jeffersonian democracy, a system, when it was put in place in the 13 colonies that became 13 states, established a completely new form of government.

“Prior to Jeffersonian democracy there was despotism, monarchy and authoritarian government, and this set in place a broad-based system based on government by the people,” said DiSarro, who teaches American government and Constitutional law.

Jefferson’s academic interests extended beyond political science. He was also a naturalist, and it turns out there’s a salamander named after not only the third president, but Jefferson College.

Bob Reid, communications manager at Washington & Jefferson College, was able to unearth some information on the Jeffersonian creature.

“In working with Amy Welch, this is what we can definitively tell you about the Jefferson salamander,” Reid wrote in answer to an email inquiry.

“It was first described in print in 1827 in ‘Contributions of the Maclurian Lyceum to the Arts and Sciences’ by Jacob Green, a professor at Jefferson Medical College and, later, Jefferson College.”

Green reported finding the salamander in the marshy ground near Chartiers Creek, in the vicinity of Jefferson College, Canonsburg.

“Knowing what I know about scientific naming conventions, it is likely that he named the salamander after Jefferson College due to the proximity of the college to where he found it, as well as his connection with the college,” Reid wrote.

According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the length of the Jefferson salamander is between 4 1/2 and 7 inches.

The bust of Jefferson in W&J’s Old Main, Welch said, is approximately 38 inches tall, 38 inches deep and 30 inches wide.

And that’s the long and short of two aspects of Jefferson’s heritage and the connection with a college that bears his name.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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