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602 S. Gay Street
Knoxville, TN 37902
A friend recently brought your story about the headless statue to my attention. [“The Headless Governor,” Secret History by Jack Neely, July 15, 2010] This story is not correct in all respects. The statue was acquired by Mr. Conley. That’s true. Edgar Bowlin died Nov 29 2001, not 1981. Conley and Bowlin actually became good friends. Conley was very concerned about finding a good home for the statue. Everyone was certain that he had done that when it went to the John Sevier Descendants.
Don Ault contacted me in 2003 to tell me that the statue had been “beheaded,” probably as a requirement for a pledge going through rush. Knoxville police lightly investigated, but came up with nothing. My mother was crushed. Although Mr. Neely apparently doesn’t think much of it, mom always thought it was my dad’s best sculpture. My dad was also an accomplished oil painter. President Eisenhower sat for a portrait and many of my dad’s paintings sold for good sums of money. But one thing I learned from my dad about art, it is always in the eye of the beholder. So I am never insulted when I hear someone found one of his paintings in a yard sale, or I hear someone say they didn’t care for his work. The next day someone calls me hoping to buy a painting—any painting that bears his name, and eventually the person who buys a painting in a yard sale makes a profit. That is also not important. What was, and is still, important about my dad was that his life’s work was him and he was his work. There was no separating the two. Few of us can say that. Among my mom’s last words to me before she died in 2008 was that she was thankful that dad did not live to see his work destroyed. “It would have ripped his heart out.”
By the way, the wax museum is long gone—replaced by better technology. The bronze bust of Helen Keller is at the Talladega School for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega, Ala. Many of his busts and two other large statues survive. Both of those statues also have their own story. His paintings hang in homes and galleries literally around the world.
Col. (Ret.) Gladwyn G. Bowlin