03: Men in bronze

Walking around the Baylor campus, you can't help but notice the larger-than-life statues of two of the University's most important leaders--Rufus C. Burleson and R.E.B. Baylor.

Burleson was the only man to serve a term as Baylor's president both in Independence and Waco. He was Baylor's first president in Waco following the school's relocation and 1886 merger with Waco University.

Burleson became Baylor's first president emeritus in 1897 and died in 1901 at age 77. His friends and former students soon began collecting funds to build a statue of him that would be displayed on campus, and they chose Pompeo Coppini, an Italian sculptor who had moved to Texas.

Since Burleson had been a traditional Baptist minister, opposed to the consumption of alcohol, the story of how Coppini came to create his iconic statue is one of those ironies of history.

To come up with a good likeness of Burleson, Coppini relied on a somewhat poor portrait engraving of the late Baylor president, as well as input from Burleson's family and friends. But the sculptor wanted a live model to help him realize his vision of a standing Burleson, and that's where the story gets interesting.

On Aug. 8, 1903, a little more than two years after Burleson's death, Baylor officials accompanied members of the Burleson family to Coppini's studio to inspect the clay model of the proposed statue. For perspective on a standing Burleson, Coppini had used a model, a "dissipated whiskey drinker...a bum" from the streets of San Antonio, who happened to bear a striking resemblance to the staunch teetotaler.

After Burleson's young granddaughter inspected the clay likeness, she said, "Grandma, that is Grandpa!" The girl's grandmother--Georgia Burleson, Rufus's widow--was silent at first, then began crying and left the room. Coppini, worried that this meant she hated his work, was reassured that wasn't the case--it was simply that Mrs. Burleson thought the clay model looked so much like her late husband she couldn't stand to look at it any longer without breaking down.

The Burleson statue was dedicated June 7, 1905, in the area that would become known as Burleson Quadrangle.

Thirty years later, Baylor officials were busy planning for the creation of another iconic campus statue--this one honoring Judge R.E.B. Baylor. In October 1935, President Pat Neff formed a committee to decide how to use $14,000 in federal funds allocated for the Texas Centennial celebration that Baylor had received.

When the committee met Jan. 7, 1936, it had almost agreed to approve the proposal of Chicago sculptor Leonard Crunelle, who envisioned Judge Baylor as a standing marble figure, draped in robes and raised upon a pedestal.

Crunelle's standing figure design, which Baylor University historian Robert Reid would later describe as dressing poor Judge Baylor in a somewhat drafty "Roman toga," soon fell out of favor. The man who was given the job of memorializing the Judge was a familiar face--Pompeo Coppini. After finishing the Burleson statue, he had gone on to sculpt a number of famous works depicting important figures and moments in Texas history, such as the monument at Sam Houston's grave and the Spirit of Sacrifice cenotaph memorializing the heroes of the Alamo in Alamo Plaza.

Coppini chose bronze for his statue instead of marble, gave Judge Baylor a lawyerly suit of clothes and placed the statue's location facing the entrance to Waco Hall.

The Judge Baylor statue was unveiled on the University's 94th birthday--Feb. 1, 1939. Rev. George W. Truett delivered the main address, and descendants of Judge Baylor were among the 3,000 people gathered to watch the unveiling.

In the more than 75 years since that time, thousands of Baylor students have taken part in the tradition of having a photo taken in the bronze lap of Judge Baylor--and the only toga-like attire usually seen there are the robes of proud Baylor graduates making one more memory.