The city of Delaware is one of only 43 cities across the country that can lay claim to being the birthplace of a United States president. But given the lack of recognition around the city for such a rare and historic fact, one would be forgiven for not knowing the connection between Delaware and Rutherford B. Hayes, the country’s 19th president.
On Friday, Delaware’s native son finally received proper recognition from his hometown with the unveiling of a 7-foot statue at the southwest corner of William and Sandusky streets. The date — Oct. 4 — marked the 197th anniversary of Hayes’ birth in Delaware.
With the ceremony and unveiling of the statue, a three-year process to make the project a reality came to a close. And while the day certainly belonged to Hayes, the people within the Delaware community who took the initiative when no one else was willing should be equally commended.
Gene Buckingham, at the time a Delaware resident, got the ball rolling for the project in 2016 when he went before Delaware City Council to address the lack of recognition within the city for its most famous native. With the city on board, Buckingham was tasked with spearheading the project in its initial stages.
A committee, named the Hayes Heritage Fund, was formed by Buckingham, with Cory Beam, then a senior at Delaware Hayes High School, chosen to chair the committee. Beam served in the position through his senior year before heading off to college.
At that time, Buckingham, who had taken a job and was living in eastern Indiana, assumed the position and commuted to Delaware from his home regularly for committee meetings.
Through their work, funds were raised to pay for an artist rendering of what the vision for the memorial should look like. But the project struggled to “get off the ground” after that, now-Chairman Bill Rietz said.
Rietz, a retired school teacher in the Delaware community, joined the committee last spring and said he challenged the committee in May of 2018 to set a goal for the project’s completion. The date — Oct. 4, 2019 — was set, and the committee went to work to make it happen.
Rietz said several factors aligned for the chosen date. Being the year 2019 and Hayes being the 19th president, Rietz felt it appropriate to finish the project this year. Hayes’ birthday made Oct. 4 a proper date for the ceremony, and that date would also serve as the October First Friday celebration in downtown Delaware, meaning the streets would be closed off and people would already be downtown.
With the vision for the statue and its unveiling all in place, there was just one an issue, albeit the most critical component of the project: The fund’s balance sat at just $268.
The committee secured an artist — Ohio sculptor Alan Cottrill — and then went public with its fundraising campaign last October during a First Friday event.
Cottrill’s past work can be seen in the Woody Hayes and Jesse Owens statues on the campus of The Ohio State University, as well as in his Thomas Edison statue in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
“The community, we had a short timeframe to get this accomplished, but they were energetic as all get-out, as we all were, and things just started rolling,” Rietz said. “Before we knew it, the funds were running in.”
Two generous donations by OhioHealth and Greif, Inc. played significant roles in getting the necessary funding. Both are recognized as “Presidential” level donors, which is designated for donations of $25,000 and above, and Rietz said the project would not be ready for unveiling without their substantial donations.
Rietz added there was a total of 75 donors who gave $500 or more, and plenty more who gave $10 or $20.
Rietz also recognized local schools for their “Pennies for the President” program that resulted in what he called a “nice donation,” as well as Big Walnut’s “19 for the 19th” initiative.
“It was a community-based effort,” Rietz said. “It wasn’t just the corporations. We had activities, there were various businesses where a portion of the sales would come to the Hayes Heritage Fund.”
Lee Yoakum, community affairs coordinator for the City of Delaware, said of the project, “This effort was transformed from a project into a mission that everyone got behind because of the friends, neighbors, co-workers, businesses, teachers, and school children who helped out in some way. That’s what makes this so special; it is as much a celebration of community as of our native son.”
Rietz added, “Because of the support of the community, organizations, schools, individuals and businesses, we’ve been able to enhance what we were originally going to be able to do.”
He said the original plan was the statue and the refurbishing of the fountain behind the statue. A bust of Hayes to adorn the atrium of Hayes High School was also part of the original plan, he said. In addition to the bust, they hired a graphic artist to do some Hayes-related designing on the walls of the atrium.
An interpretive panel will also be installed on William Street, and Rietz said some upgrading to the site around the existing Hayes plaque recognizing his birthplace — now a BP gas station — is “in the works.”
“When you think of 250 years of American history under the Constitution, that’s saying something. That just blows my mind,” Rietz said of Delaware being the birthplace of a United States president. “Even if you double that, Delaware would be one of less than 100 communities (to be home to a president) in 500 years since the country was created after the Constitution.”
The fact Delaware isn’t listed on the Ohio History Connection’s “Presidential Trail,” which highlights 13 stops across Ohio related to the state’s eight U.S. presidents is probably most indicative of the lack of recognition that currently exists in the city.
Asked why he felt it took so long for this recognition to happen in Delaware, Rietz said the idea for this project was probably like many other great ideas — it would be great if someone else did it.
“It took people like Gene stepping forward and saying, ‘We need to do it, and we need to do it now.’ He got the ball rolling and it continued to roll,” Rietz said. “That’s what we needed to do. It’s a great idea, the community is saying it needs to be done. Let’s do it … I don’t think it was so much the financial side as it was a spirited group going out and getting it done.”
As for the lasting impact he hopes the statue has on the community, Rietz said the location for the statue is “primo,” with the statue looking down William Street toward Hayes’ birthplace.
“People are going to see it, whether they’re coming from the east or west, north or south,” he said. “It’s a statue that welcomes people to the community.”
Rietz said Friday’s unveiling wasn’t the end of the Hayes Heritage Fund committee’s efforts. He said the focus will now shift to continued education of the life of Hayes and his impact both within the city and nationally.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.