Former students at the oldest military school west of the Mississippi River are getting ownership of a coveted monument.
The alumni association of the recently closed Wentworth Military Academy and College in Lexington was fighting to retain control over a 94 year-old World War I Doughboy statue.
Since its founding 137 years ago in the era following the Civil War, the institution has seen its enrollment highs and lows. The student body swelled during the world wars and nosedived after the Vietnam War. After some gains following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the high school and junior college saw its population and financial picture plummet like many other military academies in recent years.
Kansas City-based Bank Midwest holds a lien on the property and is auctioning its inventory on October 7th, and had planned to include the Doughboy. The Lafayette County Circuit Court will scheduled to hear arguments over the fate of the statue Tuesday morning at 9:30.
But instead, the court signed off and finalized an agreement reached Monday night by the bank, the school and the alumni association for a temporary restraining order to prevent the Doughboy from being auctioned off.
The bank also agreed in principle Monday night to allow the alumni association to take ownership of the statue. Wentworth graduate and attorney George Hittner, who was representing the alumni, says the ownership pact should become official soon. “The parties have all agreed,” said Hittner. “It’s time now just to reduce it to writing. But the Doughboy will be coming home to the alumni association.”
Wentworth alumni had steadfastly claimed that they paid for the Doughboy and had dedicated him in 1923 to the memory of 16 Wentworth Cadets who died in World War I. About 30 members of the group gathered after the court hearing to salute the Doughboy, which was a requirement for first year students at the school.
Hittner said Monday night’s agreement came as a big relief to the former Wentworth students. “We are now shifting our focus to preserving the rest of the history of the 137 years that Wentworth was around. But the most iconic image of Wentworth has been preserved, and it will not be sold off to the highest bidder.”
The monument is one of about 140 copies created by sculptor Ernest Moore Viquesney, (1876-1946). The statues, referred to as the “Spirit of the American Doughboy”, were sold during the 1920s as a tribute to soldiers. Doughboy was an informal term for members of the Army and Marine Corp. during World War I.
At Wentworth, first year cadets, known as RAT’s (Recruit at Training), were ordered to salute the 5 1/2-foot–tall Doughboy from a 12-foot distance in their first year. They were also forbidden from walking behind him or approaching him.
Hittner said the Doughboy holds a unique place in the minds of school alumni. “It’s a statue that has the names of fellow alumni who died in the First World War on the statue. And it’s just a very, very well entrenched symbol of not only the service and sacrifice of Wentworth alums, but of the school and everybody’s time spent there since 1923 (the year it was installed)”.
Jim Sellers is a Wentworth alum with deep connections to the school. He’s the great-great-grandson of founder Stephen G. Wentworth, and the great grandson of Sandford Sellers, who was its Superintendent between 1880-and-1938.
Sellers says the Doughboy holds special meaning for former students. “It’s always represented to those of us who have attended Wentworth, service, duty, honor and country,” said Sellers. “It’s a very important part of the Wentworth experience, its culture and its legacy.”
The Alumni Association wants to preserve the Doughboy for public display. Its court document even offered options, including the lawn of the Lexington Courthouse or a potential Wentworth Museum.
Hittner said that after the sides came to an agreement Monday night, the alumni formed a committee to determine where to place the monument.
It’s current location at the school is one of three known Doughboys on public display in the state. The others stand on the lawns of the Pettis County Courthouse in west-central Missouri’s Sedalia, and the Polk County Courthouse in southwest Missouri’s Bolivar.
Sellers says the school’s former students have strong ties to each other, regardless of the era when they when they were at the institution. “One of the amazing things about Wentworth is the extent to which all of us, regardless of when we attended, have a very common shared experience, and a deep kinship and bond of that experience.”