Story and photos by Karen Carr Keefe
Youngstown sculptor Susan Geissler has received a new commission of great significance for Grand Island. She has been chosen to create the statue of Medal of Honor recipient Pfc. Charles N. DeGlopper, a World War II hero from Grand Island.
The statue will be installed in the center of the DeGlopper Memorial, at the intersection of Grand Island Boulevard and Baseline Road. In June 2016, on the 72nd anniversary of DeGlopper's death, members of the DeGlopper Memorial Expansion Committee held a ceremonial groundbreaking to launch an estimated $750,000 expansion of the original parkland to include land that was once a gas station.
The expansion committee includes members of the Pfc. Charles N. DeGlopper Memorial Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 9249, Grand Island American Legion Post No. 1346, and Grand Island Moose Lodge No. 180. Their project is to honor DeGlopper, the other 13 Island soldiers killed in action, as well as servicemen and women from the community who have served their country.
Turning Points in History
DeGlopper, a member of the Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, was killed in battle June 9, 1944, during the D-Day invasion. He died as he drew enemy fire away from his battalion by firing his automatic rifle at the German soldiers. His courageous act of self-sacrifice saved the lives of his fellow soldiers and is considered a critical point in the Battle of Normandy.
Geissler is no stranger to sculpting scenes that capture turning points in history. Her Tuscarora Heroes Monument commemorates "the gallantry of a vastly outnumbered band of Tuscarora men" who came to the defense of American white settlers, delaying a British attack on Lewiston during the War of 1812.
The sculptor's Freedom Crossing monument honors Lewiston's Underground Railroad participants who helped slaves escape to freedom across the Niagara River to Canada.
Unbeknownst to Geissler, Buffalo artist Ralph Sirianni had recommended her for the commission to make the DeGlopper statue.
Independently, Geissler and her husband, Peter Henderson, who handles the business side of the artistic work, had read about the DeGlopper Memorial expansion groundbreaking and dedication last June, and they decided to attend and find out who was involved in the project.
At the dedication, Henderson said he went over to Sirianni. "I said to Ralph, 'Do you know who the sculptor's going to be on this?' and he said, 'Yes, Susan Geissler.' That was the first we heard about it," Henderson said.
At the dedication, they met Ray DeGlopper, and his wife, Anita, who is also an artist. "She recognized Susan's talent right away," Henderson said. "They're wonderful people."
"We offered for everyone at that unveiling to come to the studio and take a tour if they wanted to."
Charles DeGlopper's nephew, Ray DeGlopper said the choice of Geissler to do the statue was easy, "if you see some of the things that she's done, like in Lewiston." He, his wife, Anita, and Memorial Committee Chairman Erik Anderson took Geissler up on her offer of a tour of her Tuscarora Heroes and Freedom Crossing monuments, and they were favorably impressed.
DeGlopper was also at the dedication of Geissler's sculpture of World War II hero and Buffalonian Wade McClusky at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, where the finished statue will eventually be on permanent display.
"We were down there for the unveiling. It wasn't the finished project. Wade McClusky's son was there, and the likeness of him, to his father and to this monument ... that's why Susan (was chosen). Might be a little more expensive, but I think it's the right choice.
Chris Taylor of the DeGlopper Memorial Expansion Committee said the decision to choose her was made official at the committee's July 13 meeting. But the DeGlopper family's input was the primary factor, he said.
Grand Island Supervisor Nathan McMurray applauded the choice of Geissler as the sculptor.
"I've been lucky enough to travel a lot, and the most successful war monuments are not glorifications of war," but rather "a remembrance of the sacrifice of war and the solemnity of war. I'm very glad they chose Susan Geissler," he said. "Her Tuscarora Heroes monument is fantastic, and her Lewiston Crossing monument - I've taken a lot of out-of-town guests to go visit it. So I was very, very grateful they chose her to do this."
Sculptor Susan Geissler, in her Youngstown studio, shows a "concept model" for the statue she will create of Pfc. Charles N. DeGlopper of Grand Island, a World War II hero who died in the Battle of Normandy saving the lives of his fellow soldiers under fire from German forces. The statue will be installed in DeGlopper Memorial Park at Grand Island Boulevard and Baseline Road.
Capturing Emotions in Clay
Geissler has created a "concept model" of Charles DeGlopper holding his Browning automatic rifle used in that fateful battle. The way the model is posed was based on a picture that artist Ralph Sirianni drew for the back of the T-shirt for the memorial project, but there was other input.
"This was the result of conversations with the DeGloppers and the committee," said Henderson.
Geissler said DeGlopper family members told her that in the Normandy invasion, "Charles and fellow troops glided in behind enemy lines and were trapped." She said the family explained that Charles, at 22, told his fellow soldiers - many of whom had wives and children to go home to - " 'I'm going out there. And when I'm out there, just get out.' " She said Charles DeGlopper's nephew, Charlie, Ray DeGlopper's youngest brother, "has second-hand stories of the men that looked back when Pfc. Charles DeGlopper was walking out." Geissler said that, according to those stories, "He was just carrying his Browning automatic, 6 feet, 7 inches tall, walking out there and firing. He was taking the bullets ... and kept shooting and died, and he died saving the lives of his men."
Geissler said that when she does the sculpture of Charles DeGlopper, what he went through will be written "on his face and on his body - his whole mannerism. In a way, it's like an actor studying the script of a character they're going to portray."
"An example was my Freedom Crossing piece with the slave mother who - I wanted her fear of being chased by slave catchers while she's trying to escape. Her child is being passed to her. She just wants to get to freedom and out of there and is just absolutely terrified," she described. "I took a walk one evening. It was getting dusky. It was a walk on an overgrown path down to the river, off River Road here. And I started to convince myself I was being chased. But relayed that story, in my mind, to the time when I was a little girl, being chased by these boys in New Jersey, and how scared I was. And I just remember the breathing that I was going through. I was breathing, and I was scaring myself. So when you look at the slave mother, I want you to capture the breath - the shortness of breath that's coming out of her mouth," Geissler said. "Her eyebrows, her hands. She just wants her baby. So that's what I would like to do. I try to find as much personal information from people about Charlie. The kindness of his nature - this big, gentle giant. He's a farm boy - that makes up the character of what I would put into the piece. Live the piece and try to portray that."
Fundraising Affects Timetable for Statue
The time frame for the statue's completion, as well as the rest of the park, depends on the success of ongoing fundraising, committee member Taylor said. "If we could complete it in the summer of 2018, I think that would probably be a win," he said.
Also affecting the timetable is the fact that it's a complicated and expensive process to create and cast a statue, Henderson said. "We usually tell someone (it takes) 15 months from the time Susan is told to go on the project. In this case, they still have some fundraising to do, so Susan hasn't really been told to go yet."
"Although it's been announced that it's been commissioned," Geissler added.
"They have quite a few fundraising ideas," Henderson said.
Supervisor McMurray put in a request for Niagara River Greenway funding for the park expansion for next year. "The application is still in the works, but we're going to try to get as much as we can," McMurray said. He also made a video about Charles DeGlopper and the committee's quest to build a more extensive tribute to him.
He said the impetus for his video was the desire to tell DeGlopper's story and raise awareness about the project with a goal toward fundraising. He said the video has already received 10,000 views online. McMurray said he also worked with committee chairman Erik Anderson to draft emails to all the major defense contractors to seek financial support.
A fundraiser is also planned for Oct. 1 at the VFW post. A new fundraising event is in the works through the wetlands and waterfowl conservation group, Ducks Unlimited, and its local representative, Islander Ron Rezabek.
Larger than Life
The DeGlopper memorial will be life-sized. Henderson said. "Typically, we make them a little over life-sized. In this case, he's already over life-sized."
Several weeks ago, when Geissler introduced the little concept model of the statue, the dialogue began on what size the actual statue and its base, or plinth, would be. "Initially it was going to be a 5-foot-high plinth he was standing on," Geissler said. "It just seemed he was so tall that it was a question. And so, because the committee would look at this and have some input, I decided to make this concept model with three choices of heights, so that everyone could see what it would look like, one way or the other."
Henderson said with five feet of the stone and a 7-foot-tall sculpture, the top of the statue would be 12 feet off the ground.
Geissler said everyone on the committee seemed to like a lower height made up of two angled pieces of stone as a base for the statue.
From Clay to Bronze - Complex & Costly
When asked about the process used to create a statue, Henderson joked: "There are 13 easy steps from clay to bronze." The irony, of course, is that the process is anything but easy, with highly paid craftsmen at each stage taking Geissler's clay sculpture through a complicated series of steps.
"First, I make the model in clay," Geissler explained. "And after either the model or the life-sized sculpture, whichever is the masterpiece, I'll send it to a mold-maker, and the mold-maker puts on a latex rubber mold with a plaster support mold. They call it "the mother mold."
Steps 3 through 12 include pulling the mother mold off the clay; applying molten wax to the inside of the mold; removing the mold and leaving a wax positive of the original piece; making a shell that will be the mold for the molten bronze; pouring molten bronze into ceramic shells; cooling, sandblasting, cleaning, sandblasting again and creating patinas - which give the piece its color and surface character through chemical reaction or paint.
Fast forward to step 13, which Geissler describes: "Then they varnish it, and then they apply a paste wax - all of that to protect the metal and the patina. And then my driver - Peter - goes out and picks the sculptures up and brings them to where they're going to be installed. And that's pretty much the process."
"The mold-makers and the foundry people, they're all artists in their own right," Henderson said. They have some long-term relationships with a number of the foundries in Loveland, Colorado.
Geissler will attend certain steps in the process, so she is there to make sure the finished product faithfully and accurately follows her original creation. "Explaining this process," she said, "I always like to finish with, 'And if you think I'm getting all that money when you read in the paper the piece is, like, $300,000 - or whatever - I'm not getting paid all that money. I am paying the services of these foundries first, so I have to pay everybody, and then at the end, I will get paid.' "
"These guys are getting $85 an hour, you know," Henderson explained. Geissler added, "So the more we can educate the public about that, the better."
In-kind Contributions Reduce Costs
The Grand Island community has stepped up to make in-kind contributions to defray costs, said expansion committee chairman Erik Anderson. "Businesses on and off the Island have helped, doing such things as donating trees, stone and dirt. Several people have credited project engineer Dan Drexelius for his work and inspiration on the project. "When he says it's going to happen, it will happen," Ray DeGlopper said.
Committee member Taylor also appreciates all the work done so far. "We've gotten all the donated work we possibly can. Some of the landscaping work and the donated paving and the donated planters and all that stuff - to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of material and labor. But at this point, it's all dollars and cents. And anything that anybody can do in the fundraising side of it would be a great help. And anybody that wants to make a donation can do so easily at degloppermemorial.org
"The response of the community has been fantastic. We just need to put the foot down to the pedal and get it home," Taylor said.
Hometown Tribute Shaping Up
Ray DeGlopper, is active in the memorial expansion committee, and like his heroic uncle, is a humble man. He tries to imagine what made his uncle take on the act that saved lives but cost him his own life. Ray DeGlopper is glad that Charles DeGlopper's hometown is stepping up to pay tribute.
"I like the project, I like the idea," Ray DeGlopper said. "Charlie was a hero, but I think that under any circumstances, we all have things that we do that are hard to describe. When you do things that you normally would not do if you thought about them - a spur-of-the-moment thing, you'd step right up and do it. Never think of the consequences.
"I don't know if he realized that 'I might not come out of this.' I don't know what his thoughts are. You've got to think about yourself. What would you do in a situation like this?"
In 2010, Ray DeGlopper and four others paid a visit to the battle site in France where his uncle died. There, he found a plaque with his uncle's picture on it, an inscription that told about him, as well as the knowledge that others knew of his uncle's sacrifice. In 2015, there was a dedication of the DeGlopper Air Assault School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
DeGlopper said others in his family and circle of friends have suggested greater hometown recognition for his uncle, who has been honored elsewhere in perhaps greater measure.
"Ten, 15 years ago, I remember there was a guy by the name of Bill Ashenbaum, who was here and he asked, 'How many buildings were named after Charlie?' And I says, 'Well, just the reserve center over there.' And he says, 'There should be buildings, streets - you name it.' "
Ray DeGlopper also said that his aunt had a similar request in about 1994. Lillus Bell, Charles DeGlopper's sister, lived on the Island till 1960 or so, at Fix Road and Baseline, part of the Bell farms, before moving to Perry, New York. "She said to me one day, there should be a statue of Charlie in town. And I says, 'Yes,' and this is probably the first of anything that's come about from that."
Expansion committee chairman Anderson is passionate in his vision for the DeGlopper Memorial.
"If you walk out into that clearing where the statue is going to be, and you look out, the whole point of this, with the statue going up, is that Mr. DeGlopper is going to be watching over everything, and that's what we wanted. We wanted the likeness to be very, very presentable to the family. ... We also wanted Mr. DeGlopper to watch over all of the veterans, whether they're on the wall, whether they're on the KIA (Killed in Action) stone. We wanted him to watch over it, and to me, that is a huge, huge deal."
Ray DeGlopper stands in DeGlopper Memorial Park beside the monument that bears the names of Grand Island servicemen who have been killed in action during U.S. wars. At the top of the list of World War II casualties are the names of two of his uncles, Medal of Honor recipient Charles N. DeGlopper, for whom the park is named, and Eugene F. Dinsmore. Fundraising is underway to expand the park and install a statue of Charles DeGlopper that will be sculpted by Susan Geissler of Youngstown.