What does it take to stand upright in front of a statue?
London has not yet fallen, but some of its statues have toppled. Indeed, statues are coming down all over the world. I live in the Chicago area and last year, as protests heated up, the mayor had two statues of Columbus hastily removed.
Some conservatives have been so annoyed by this trend that they have been driven to arguing that all statues should be preserved in situ as part of the historical record. I doubt even they literally believe this. Certainly no one in America did anything but cheer when the Iraqis pulled down monuments to Saddam Hussein.
On the other side of this tussle, I recently heard a progressive college student cornered into arguing that buildings should never be named after anyone. I think that is a counsel of despair. If we cannot point to any person whom we are willing to declare lived an admirable life, then we are telling ourselves and our children that it is impossible to live a life worthy of admiration. It is also a counsel of despair to just eliminate from the category of the admirable everyone in history simply because they were not as up to date as we are. In other words, we must do the hard work of deciding who from the past lived in their day a life that is worthy of honor.
In 2015, attention was drawn to the fact that although Chicago’s 580 city parks were heavily populated with statues of men, there was not a single statue of a historical woman. As a result of that campaign, in 2018 the poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was the first woman to be so honored. Next came the social reformer Jane Addams (1860-1935), for a grand total of two so far. The Statues for Equality movement continues to invite nominations of other women whose lives could inspire the park-strolling public.
Having given the matter some thought, my nomination is May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975), the tenacious visionary campaigner for the Illinois Prairie Path, the first successful rails-to-trails project in the nation.
In many ways, her life seemed destined to be obscure and ordinary. Like so many Americans before and since, May Theilgaard was a child of immigrants. She was educated in the public schools of Chicago. At the age of eighteen, she became a public school teacher herself, initially in a one-room school. She married and had three children. She liked to read murder mysteries.
During the summer breaks, however, May Theilgaard Watts began taking college courses; she eventually earned a B.S. in Botany and Ecology from the University of Chicago. Thirty years after she began her teaching career, Watts’ passion for the outdoors and her scientific study of nature led to her being appointed a staff naturalist at the Morton Arboretum.
Watts had the vision to see that the Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad, which was shut down in 1961, could be transformed into an extensive, continuous, public trail system. The leaders of some of the affected towns, however, were vehemently against this idea, eyeing the land for their own coveted development projects, such as parking garages. For eight long years Watts had to battle opposition at town planning meetings. In the end, she prevailed. The Illinois Prairie Path was the first rails-to-trails project to be approved, inspiring a national movement.
For years my primary form of exercise had occurred through the use of machines at a fitness center, but when the pandemic came, the gyms closed. So I hit the trail. I only need to walk about two blocks from my house to get to Watts’ prairie path. I go out three times a week, running (ever so slowly) about six miles east, before turning around and mostly walking back.
As Watts foresaw, this modest but continuous corridor of green curving its way through business, industrial, and residential areas is enough to sustain a surprisingly vigorous and diverse natural world. I have seen deer, coyotes, foxes, skunks, raccoons, chipmunks, mice, and more. I wish I could say for sure what I saw a couple of weeks ago swimming in an unpretentious stream. An otter? As so many others have reported, the pandemic seemed to make the birds louder and their species more abundant. I have found calm and nature as well as exercise on Watts’ prairie path—and I’ve needed them as precious lifelines of sanity, stability, and renewal.
I also have gained trail acquaintances who courteously acknowledge one another as fellow regulars. There is the lady who owns a dry-cleaning store and who is always listening to sermons in Korean. There is the retired gentleman who recurringly jokes that his sunglasses make him look like Bono, which he pronounces Bone-O.
My favorite is Jeff, also retired. Following the old-school rules of brief social interactions to perfection, he invariably confines his remarks to the weather. Determined to say something positive, he typically opens with, “I’m lovin’ this day!” If circumstances are somewhat unpleasant, he will go with a line such as, “I like it a bit on the cool side.” If his innate sense of honesty has completely defeated his exuberant, Pollyanna soul, he will default to, “What do you make of this weather?” If I can reply with something reasonably upbeat such as, “Well, it means the mosquitoes have gone away,” he will beam with delight.
Watts launched her campaign for the Prairie Path with a letter to the Chicago Tribune. It began: “We are human beings. We are able to walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath.”
The examples in Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) are, alas, all of men. Creating a taxonomy of the admirable, Carlyle sorted them into six categories: The Hero as Divinity, Prophet, Poet, Priest, Man of Letters, and King. In addition to including women—and, in particular, May Theilgaard Watts—I would also like to add another category: The Hero as Trailblazer.
Timothy Larsen teaches at Wheaton College and is currently a Visiting Fellow, Christ Church, Oxford University. He is the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Christmas.