Ingersoll statue restored by FFRF: By Leslie Renken

By Leslie Renken

This article first appeared in the Peoria Journal Star in Illinois on July 23 and is reprinted with permission.

For most of his life and for years after his death, Robert G. Ingersoll was both lauded and ridiculed in Peoria.

Today, he’s all but forgotten.

“He’s the most famous Peorian you’ve never heard of,” said Cheryl Hofbauer, a member of the Peoria Secular Humanist Society. She and her husband, Ken, worked with a national organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, to restore the bronze statue of Ingersoll that has stood at the back entrance of Glen Oak Park since 1911.

Removed May 10 for repairs, the restored Ingersoll statue was rededicated on Aug. 11, the 183rd anniversary of Ingersoll’s birth.

Peoria’s infidel

Ingersoll’s advocacy of rational thinking and humanism over the tenets of organized religion earned him the nickname “Peoria’s Infidel.” A lawyer, philosopher, Civil War veteran and one-time attorney general of Illinois, Ingersoll’s most successful endeavor was public speaking. He was a brilliant thinker whose oratory skills and personable nature served him well both as a trial attorney and a paid speaker — he typically earned $3,500 per speech. Many of his speeches tackled thorny topics of the day, including slavery and women’s rights. He frequently poked fun at orthodox religion. His speeches and writings on these topics catapulted him to international fame.

“He was the top-drawing speaker in America. When he spoke, the lecture halls were standing-room only. Before fire codes, people would climb up into the rafters to see him speak,” said Canton resident Connie Cook Smith, co-president and a founder of the now defunct Peoria-based Friends of Robert Ingersoll society.

Ingersoll lived in Peoria from 1857 to 1877, pivotal years in his career and life. He and his brother built a successful law practice, and Ingersoll evolved from an indifferent Christian (his father was a congregational minister) to an outspoken agnostic. His wife, Eva Parker of Groveland, was likely instrumental in his deconversion. She came from a family known for their unorthodox religious views, according to American Infidel: Robert G. Ingersoll, by Orvin Larson [available at]. Ingersoll left Peoria when business and cultural interests called the family to New York.

For a long time after his death in 1899, Ingersoll remained a topic of spirited debate in Peoria. In 1983, the Friends of Robert Ingersoll society celebrated the 150th anniversary of Ingersoll’s birth with a week of activities in Peoria. At one point during the festivities the head of American Atheists, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, got up and slammed Ingersoll for a number of things, including not doing more to assist atheist organizations of his time. But perhaps most insulting, according to Ingersoll fans present that day, was her comparison of Ingersoll to Ronald Reagan — both were radical right-wingers, she said. As a result, the Friends of Robert Ingersoll banned O’Hair from future celebrations.

In recent years Ingersoll seems to have been forgotten for all but a few scholarly Peorians. Cook Smith has a theory why.

“Librarians of the day were very religious, and they tended to throw out his books,” she said.

The recent removal of Ingersoll’s statue did create some interest, however. Former longtime Peoria County Board member Roger Monroe wrote an editorial for The Community Word on May 31.

“There’s no truth to the rumor that the park district is now planning to construct a statue of Karl Marx,” Monroe said. “One wonders if those who believe would be permitted to have a statue of Christ at the entrance to the park on Prospect Road.”

An easy fundraiser

In spite of Peoria’s ambivalence for Ingersoll, there are a great many people elsewhere who still hold him in high esteem.

“Ingersoll is a beloved figure in freethought history,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “He’s just an icon in our movement.”

His popularity made it incredibly easy to raise $35,000 for the restoration of Ingersoll’s statue. Once FFRF put the word out, donations came in from across the nation, as well as Canada and Puerto Rico.

“There were 26 people who donated $1,000 or more, and altogether close to 300 people donated,” said Ken Hofbauer, who had alerted FFRF about the deterioration of the statue after meeting Jeff Ingersoll, a descendant of Robert Ingersoll, at a conference last summer.

“He saw my name tag and said ‘You’re from Peoria. Did you know there’s a statue of Robert Ingersoll in a park there?'” said Hofbauer. “He’d seen it a couple years ago, and it looked awful. He asked me if I could hook up with someone from the park district to do something about it.”

Hofbauer contacted the Peoria Park District and they got an estimate for the restoration — $60,000. Hofbauer was told it could be considered in the next year’s budget, but there was some doubt about approval.

“I was told that there’s never enough money to go around,” said Hofbauer. That’s when he started brainstorming other ways to raise the funds.

In October, Hofbauer and his wife attended the FFRF national convention, where they met Gaylor, who was familiar with the Ingersoll statue in Peoria.

“I have seen it. We held a convention in Peoria in the 1980s because of Peoria’s Ingersoll ties,” she said. When Hofbauer asked about the possibility of FFRF participating in a fundraising effort for the statue’s restoration, Gaylor asked him to email pictures of the deterioration.

“I was horrified when I saw the photographs,” she said. “I said, ‘Yes, we can take this on as a fundraising project.’ And soon after I sent out the notice, our members reacted with great alacrity.”

In addition to money, FFRF got some advice.

“I had two members who contacted us and said ‘that bid seems way too high,'” Gaylor said. “One of them, a very successful Philadelphia sculptor named Zenos Frudakis, got a bid from the foundry he’s worked with for years to do the whole restoration, including coming to get it and bringing it back, for less than $30,000.” FFRF sent the park district a check, and not long afterward the statue was hauled away.

Good for another 105 years

On July 15, the 14-foot tall bronze statue created by sculptor Fritz Triebel stood on concrete blocks in the Laran Bronze foundry in Chester, Pa. The restoration was nearly complete. The badly damaged base and many cracks and pinholes had been repaired, and the patina was restored.

“It looks pretty good,” said Frudakis, who is supervising the restoration free of charge. “The way it’s been preserved, it should last for another 105 years.”

A busy sculptor of international acclaim, Frudakis was partnering with the FFRF on another project when he heard about the Ingersoll statue. A longtime fan of Ingersoll, Frudakis quickly volunteered his services.

“I have such great respect for Ingersoll,” he said. “I am a humanist myself. I have spent my whole life trying to know what is real and what isn’t real, and that’s what he was about.”

Ingersoll’s message is as important today as when he was alive, said Frudakis, while speaking of recent political events.

“When you have someone get up and make a speech and say ‘first I am a Christian,’ and that everything comes after that . . . he doesn’t believe in evolution. They are out of touch with reality. There have been hundreds of years of science — it’s amazing to me. You can’t just make it up because you want something consistent with your world view. And people are still fighting about these things in the schools. That scares me. That’s why I donated my services. I think people should accept reality.”

Bronze is one of the most permanent of all the artistic mediums, allowing the artist to make a statement for a long time. With a little help from Frudakis, for the next 100 years Ingersoll will stand on a pedestal in Glen Oak Park as though he was still speaking to an audience. Frudakis hopes future generations will learn about this famous Peorian and study his rational philosophies.

“He is the embodiment of rational thinking, not just for his time, but for our time and the future,” he said.

Leslie Renken is an arts reporter for the Journal Star.

Freedom From Religion Foundation