For nearly a hundred years, cadets at Wentworth Military Academy saluted “the Doughboy.”
The towering sculpture was dedicated in 1923 on the Lexington, Mo., campus to memorialize the 14 alumni who died in World War I. It depicts a charging soldier, mouth in a yell, one hand holding a rifle, the other raised with a grenade.
And while the closing of Wentworth in May after 137 years was hard on today’s alumni, seeing their beloved “Doughboy” part of an auction along with dining hall cookware and a John Deere Gator was too much.
So now there’s a custody fight.
The alumni association is seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the Doughboy from being part of the auction on Oct. 7 (other items sell on Sept. 18). It names the school, board of trustees, the auction company and the bank holding company as defendants. A hearing is set for Tuesday, Sept. 19, in Lexington.
The alumni say the Doughboy is their boy. Their brothers of long ago purchased the sculpture and dedicated it on campus to honor the fallen. According to their petition filed in Lafayette County Circuit Court, the sculpture came to be the most defining and iconic image on the Wentworth campus.
But, no, they argue, it was never given to the school.
Wentworth officials, on the other hand, argue that the Doughboy has been with the school so long, he’s theirs. To them and the bank handling the auction, the sculpture is one of school’s many assets and fixtures. They have debt to satisfy.
“They’re likening it to an air conditioner,” said George Hittner, a Wentworth alumnus and Houston attorney who is working on the case. “I find that absolutely offensive.”
Andrew Muller, a Kansas City attorney representing Bank Midwest, declined to comment. But in its filed response, Bank Midwest argues that the sculpture was a gift from alumni to the school, like many others over the years.
“Nothing in the petition establishes that plaintiff had any ownership interest in the Doughboy,” the response says. “Plaintiff has no documentation memorializing that the statue was being loaned to (Wentworth) instead of being made an outright gift, as other donors had done with different pieces of memorabilia.”
The bank’s response also says the alumni association didn’t even exist until 2001.
So the fight may come down to the legal distinction between dedicated and gifted.
Hittner, who spent 7 years at Wentworth, will help argue the case at Tuesday’s hearing. He expects a good turnout of “old boys,” first at the courthouse and then at the Spotted Pig, the traditional Lexington watering hole for former cadets.
The alumni association say former students purchased the piece in 1921 and alumni have paid for repairs and upkeep since. At the 1923 dedication, the sculpture was unveiled by the mother of Robert Clore of Lee’s Summit, the first Wentworth graduate to die in the Great War.
For a while in 2002, the Doughboy spent some time in Kansas City. It was placed on exhibition at Liberty Memorial, the nation’s largest World War I monument, while funds were raised to restore and clean the sculpture.
The alumni association wants the bank to give them the Doughboy so it can be placed in the Lexington town square or in a planned Wentworth museum.
On May 31, Lafayette County Clerk Linda Niendick said county officials had agreed “it would be an honor to display this most historic sculpture on the courthouse lawn.”
Wentworth’s last year saw 220 cadets boarding at the school and 300 commuter students. Officials said declining revenue and rising expenses forced the closure, bringing an end to an academy that turned out future generals, a member of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and two Medal of Honor recipients. In May, hundreds came from all over the country for the school’s final graduation and flag lowering.
And most of them saluted the Doughboy. During cadets’ first year, called “rat (recruit-at-training) year,” they could get no closer than 12 yards to the sculpture. It was only later, when they became an “old boy” that they could step close enough to read the plaque and the names of the dead.
On the Oldham Auction website, the Doughboy currently does not appear with the hundreds of Wentworth items. A man who answered the phone Friday at the company declined to comment, referencing only the upcoming hearing.
Pulling the sculpture from the auction would not be a first. According to the alumni petition, a donated Wentworth football jersey of a cadet later killed in the Vietnam War was removed after the ownership was challenged.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182