Joe Foss statue gets center stage

Argus Leader

published: 9/28/01

6-year battle over spot for airport artwork ends

Fuss in Sioux Falls over the location of a bronze statue honoring fighter pilot Joe Foss has lasted longer than U.S. involvement in World War II.

A new and possibly final chapter to the six-year-old controversy was added Thursday, when members of the Sioux Falls Regional Airport Authority board voted to move the slightly-larger-than-lifesize statue of South Dakota's former governor to the center of the terminal lobby, under a skylight.

Word that the statue would move in coming weeks to a more prominent display area delighted Foss, who is 86 and lives in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"Well, that's great," Foss said in a telephone interview. "I'd like to have seen it in the middle from the outset. There's no doubt that was the place for it. The people who worked on it and sponsored it, that's where they wanted it, and I agreed with them 100 percent."

Since 1995, the statue has been sitting about 35 feet away, to the side of the main entry to the building.

Supporters of Foss and his metal likeness had lobbied unsuccessfully for years to get the statue moved to center court. Formal motions and informal requests to move the statue had been rejected in the past largely because airport officials did not want to obstruct the walkway.

A wave of patriotism created by the Sept. 11 attack on the United States by terrorists and further fueled by the Sept. 15 dedication of a World War II memorial in Pierre contributed to the airport board's decision to move the statue.

"The resurgence of patriotism did not prompt the decision but certainly was coincidental support," said board member Reid Christopherson, who made the motion to relocate the statue.

Support for moving it has been building in the community for quite a while, said Christopherson, who is also a commander with the South Dakota Air National Guard.

"It's just never been off the radar screen, to use a military term," he said.

Board member Neil Schmid was among the board members who has changed his thinking - and vote - on moving the artwork.

"I believe times have changed. I believe this is the time to do this, with the sentiment of the country," Schmid said.

Mike Marnach, who as airport executive director is not a voting member of the board, argued unsuccessfully against moving the statue. The timing is wrong, he said.

"We have a new war. A war started two weeks ago," he said. "We have a new breed of hero today."

After debating the timing of the move, members of the five-member board approved, in a unanimous voice vote, a motion to relocate the statue as soon as a crew can be hired to move it. A motion to delay the move until January was rejected.

Board members hope the statue will be moved by mid October, in time for the arrival of out-of-staters who fly into South Dakota to hunt pheasants.

Foss credits Sylvia Henkin, a retired radio company executive from Sioux Falls, for getting the statue moved.

"Mrs. Henkin has been a tiger on it all along. She said, 'I will get it done,'" Foss said. "She never gives up. She's a great person to have in a community."

Henkin, who was not at the meeting but was informed of the vote soon after, was overjoyed by the board's decision.

"This is where the statue was intended to be," she said.

A committee of private citizens raised money for the statue, which was sculpted by Blaine Gibson of Arizona. The statue was dedicated in 1995 as part of a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.

The statue depicts Foss in pilot uniform, pulling a leather glove on his hand and looking skyward.

As a pilot with the Marine Corps, Foss shot down 26 enemy planes and received a Congressional Medal of Honor.

Foss, who was born near Sioux Falls in 1915, went on to serve in the South Dakota Legislature and as governor from 1955 to 1959.

He became the first commissioner of the American Football League, which later merged with the National Football League. He also hosted the network television show "The Outdoorsman" and was president of the National Rifle Association. He still travels the country to make speeches.

Among other honors, the air field at the Sioux Falls Regional Airport bears his name.

People seated in the terminal, near the statue, said Thursday afternoon that moving the sculpture to a more prominent location was appropriate.

"I think it will be a good move," said Pat Leesch, a school bus driver waiting to pick her niece from a flight. "You go to other airports and you see things like that. It's not unusual to see a statue in the middle of a lobby."

Vince Protsch, a Howard lawyer who knows Foss, also said that moving the statue was a good idea.

"That might illuminate him. It's kind of dark where he is," he said.