Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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Marilou Johanek


Milan's delight: Statue of Edison finally will be in D.C.

It didn't make front-page news, but the story was big in a small Ohio village: Thomas Alva Edison, born 165 years ago in the Erie County town of Milan, will be immortalized in the U.S. Capitol.

The last legislative hurdle fell when Gov. John Kasich signed a budget bill last month. It included a provision that makes the Edison choice official as the state's second representative in National Statuary Hall.

A statue of Mr. Edison will join another in Washington, D.C., of Ohio-born President James Garfield. "It's an incredible honor," said Robert Wheeler, the inventor's great-great-grandnephew and president of the board of his Milan birthplace museum.

He, and other local Edison enthusiasts, say no other man speaks to the times like his world-renowned ancestor. "He personifies inventiveness, innovation, overcoming the odds -- he was considered stupid as a child -- and stick-to-itiveness in making things work," Mr. Wheeler said.

He could just as well have been describing the efforts of Mr. Edison's hometown to win recognition for the inventor. Scores of other great Ohioans were preferred by powerful interests.

"This victory was about as difficult and persistent as [Mr.] Edison's perfection of the incandescent lamp and storage battery," wrote Don Gfell, a longtime Edison aficionado and Milan resident, in the North Coast Business Journal. The retired educator, who spent 15 years as superintendent of the Berlin-Milan School District, was the driving force behind the Edison Statuary Hall campaign.

He told me his passion for Mr. Edison began as a youngster, always choosing him as a subject for school projects and reports. As a high school physics teacher, Mr. Gfell said, it was natural to incorporate Mr. Edison's accomplishments in his classes.

Today, the 70-year-old Mr. Gfell owns an antique shop in town and restores old phonographs (the late 19th-century talking machines invented by you-know-who). He also proselytizes about the Milan native whose imagination and entrepreneurial brilliance changed the world.

From civic organizations to senior centers, he's spoken to more groups about "his hero and hobby" than he can recall. When Ohio decided to replace one of its two statues in Statuary Hall, Mr. Gfell and "Team Edison" supporters were ready with their selection.

William Allen, a 19th-century Ohio governor and U.S. senator who supported Southern slave owners, had to go. The challenge was to find an extraordinary replacement with Buckeye roots.

The political process to pick an individual more representative of the state dragged on for three years. It involved deliberations to whittle down the long list of candidates. A committeee conducted a public vote on the finalists.

In every test, from popular vote to committee recommendation to unanimous approval in the Ohio Senate, Mr. Edison was the winner. But after 48,000 Ohioans voted for their favorite to be enshrined in Statuary Hall, after all the hearings, testimony, and decisions, Mr. Edison's selection languished for another year in the Ohio House.

The standstill ended last month with a bill that cleared both the House and Senate. State Sen. Mark Wagoner, a Republican from Ottawa Hills, tucked a proposal in the budget measure to put Mr. Edison in Statuary Hall. Bless his heart.

The hard part was done, but Mr. Gfell said he couldn't rest until the ink was dry on the governor's signature. "He still had line-item veto power, you know," Mr. Gfell said.

Now private fund-raising can begin to pay for the project. The law established a vehicle for doing so with the National Statuary Commission. The group is charged with raising as much as $1 million in donations.

An impressive team of fund-raisers has assembled, including Dr. Richard Ruppert, president emeritus of the University of Toledo Medical Center, the former Medical College of Ohio. The commission is expected to add members from Milan and Erie County.

A new statue from Ohio of one of the most important people in American history is on its way to the U.S. Capitol.

"It's really real," Mr. Gfell said. "It's all been worth it."

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

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