If asked to list the greatest moments of community unity in our nation’s or even our state’s history, recent disasters would probably fill the top 10. It’s difficult to look beyond “Boston Strong,” the upcoming 25th anniversary of the crash of Flight 232 in Sioux City or the cleanup of the 2008 floods in Eastern Iowa when asked for examples of human collaboration.
Perhaps this is because it is in those moments, when everything seems at its worst, we most need to concentrate on what’s good. We promise we will never forget the horrific incident, as well as the atmosphere of goodwill in its wake.
Yet, the collective conscience is short-lived.
My son, born in 2002, has no direct memory of the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings. What he knows has been gleaned from news reports, his friends and family and — God help us — the Internet. Sure, he understands the basics, but is weak on both details and context. Ask him about “Mission Accomplished” and he’ll probably talk about G.I. Joe instead of George W. Bush. He doesn’t get the cultural significance of scenes added to the Spiderman movie portraying hardy New Yorkers coming together to battle evil.
While I would never wish for him to have my memories of that September day, I do hope he has opportunity to experience the single-minded heartbeat that followed. I want him to experience society when the first question people are asking themselves and each other is: “How can I help?”
We need more of those moments apart from tragedy.
Ten years ago, the communities of Iowa City and Coralville came together not to battle a flood, clean up after a tornado or mourn lives lost in a campus shooting. They came together for the purpose of a public art display known as Herky on Parade.
“We did it in 2004 as part of the 75th anniversary of Kinnick Stadium,” said Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There’s never been an event that we’ve done that has had so much interest from all walks of life, locally and from visitors.”
Schamberger added that it seemed appropriate to roll out a similar public art display now the University of Iowa is celebrating 125 seasons of Hawkeye football and the 75th anniversary of Iowa’s 1939 Ironmen team.
“I think this is probably the best town-and-gown project that we’ve ever done. Everybody is a Hawkeye in this town. So to be able to have a project in which local businesses can partner and align themselves with the University trademark that is Herky is significant.”
The fiberglass Herky statues — 83 of them in all — are striking a fresh pose for 2014. It was something organizers hoped would allow the area and regional artists transforming the statues to “have a little more fun.”
Artist Elizabeth Rhoads Read, a Cedar Rapids resident who produced the Andy Warhawk, Cowboy and Dick Tracy Herkys for the 2004 event and completed six statues for 2014, thinks organizers met their goal.
“It was a fun project to do, and it is great because it brings a lot of people to the area,” she said. “When you work as a fine artist, sometimes people don’t understand what you do. But this is an interactive project that is out in the community and there really is something for everyone.”
Tom Newport, who also participated in 2004, said the project allows some to rethink or expand beyond their chosen mediums.
“It is an opportunity for artists to apply their styles or techniques of painting or sculpture or whatever to a predecided form, and that is often a challenge for most artists.”
Artist Karen Kurka Jensen, who created Wizard Herky for 2014, agreed the project was daunting at first. “I sat in front of my Herky for a week to 10 days just trying to figure out how I was going to do it,” she said.
More than 50 artists participated in the 2014 project, which includes a colorful mosaic Flower Power Herky, a Bob Ross-inspired Happy Little Herky and even a Herky Hasselhoff, just to name a few.
“We are blown away by the creativity of our local artists,” said Joe Brennan, vice president for strategic communication at UI. “It is amazing how people can take the same basic object and make it completely different. There is so much fun and energy here, I can’t wait until it is unveiled to the entire region.”
While the full parade won’t be on public display until the morning of May 5, the business community has already and literally bought into the project. Sponsorships have been paid for all 75 statues that were offered. The additional eight were part of a planned donation to area high schools and junior highs.
“The 75 sold incredibly fast,” said Schamberger, “and we are free and clear now. They’ll soon be on the streets and, once the display is complete, we’ll auction them off and probably raise more than $100,000 for the United Way of Johnson and Washington counties.”
According to Brennan, the project is important not only because it supports local artists, encourages tourism and supports local charities, but because it invites the entire community to remember and cherish common ground.
“It rallies us around our identity as Hawkeyes. It is something we can all connect to and celebrate because we have it in common.”
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on April 27, 2014. Photo credit: Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau & Kit Umscheid