URBANA — This November, Piqua residents and visitors alike will be able to go to Pitsenbarger Park and Sports Complex and be greeted by a life-size likeness of the park’s namesake. Currently standing in the Urbana studio of artist Mike Major is the bronze statue for Piqua Medal of Honor recipient William H. Pitsenbarger, a statue that has been in the works for approximately two years.
That was how long ago the Friends of the Piqua Parks began speaking with Major about completing this statue and honoring one of Piqua’s hometown heroes.
Major described the lengthy process of getting the image of Pitsenbarger from photographs to a clay model to bronze as the “lost wax process.”
“It is called the lost wax process, and it’s really an ancient process,” Major said. “We have 4,000-year-old bronzes. So the bronze-casting, lost wax process is very old.”
Major began with a clay representation of Pitsenbarger before covering a latex coating over the original artwork until the latex was two inches deep.
“We build it up over a period of time until we have two inches of rubber latex, so it’s a flexible kind of coating that records everything, even thumbprints, fingerprints,” Major said. “Plaster is put on the outside of that to kind of support the latex (and help) hold its shape.”
The mold was later opened, the rubber taken out, and hot wax painted on the inside of the mold until it was a half-inch thick.
“After the wax is painted inside the closed mold and sealed the seams, we then take the wax out and cut it into many different pieces,” Major said. “In the case of the Pitsenbarger sculpture, it was cut into probably seven or eight pieces. Each one of those pieces is then dipped in ceramic.”
A shell then formed around the wax.
“The wax is burned out, so we have that void, that piece or shape of the body, hand or head or arm, inside of that shell, which can withstand 2,000 degrees of molten bronze,” Major said. “We then pour the bronze into that.”
After that point, the shell was chipped off and the pieces were sandblasted and welded together. The welds were then shaved to get rid of the appearance of the welding.
“We go back with a grinder so that we can’t tell the weld marks, we have to shave each of the weld marks,” Major said.
Incralac, or a clear and protective coating, was also put on the finished bronze statue in order to shield it from the elements. Major explained that bronze is 94 percent copper. Without the protective coating, it would oxidize and turn green.
“As long as we wax it once or twice a year, it will look like this forever,” Major said.
Pitsenbarger’s courageous history was not separate from Major’s construction of the statue. It helped inspire Major as he worked on the statue.
“I’m of that same era,” Major said. “It’s an honor to honor Pitsenbarger.”
Major noted that he, like Pitsenbarger, grew up in Miami County. Major is originally from Pleasant Hill.
“He was an outstanding American,” Major said. “Quite a sacrifice.”
Major has been a professional visual artist for over 35 years. Major studied with the Dayton Art Institute for six years while he was in high school before going to Ohio University for undergraduate work. Major then went to the Pratt Institute in New York for graduate work.
“I have been an artist all of my life since graduate school and even before I was finished with graduate school,” Major said.
After Major attended the Pratt Institute, he was asked to come to Ohio for one year to be Ohio’s first artist in residence for the Ohio Arts Council and the National Endowments of the Arts. Major and his wife decided to stay after they fell in love with the area.
“First life-size sculpture was Simon Kenton, who is the Great Frontiersman,” Major said. Major explained that the sculpture was for Kenton’s grave.
“The second, the one that really ignited my career, was a portrait of Woody Hayes that was not intended to be cast in bronze, it was just a private project,” Major said. “But a friend of mine saw it who was close to the Hayes family, and when Mrs. Hayes saw it, she commissioned two castings.”
With the Woody Hayes sculpture, Major earned some national press.
“It just snowballed after that,” Major said.
Major currently has nine commissions this year, including three sculptures for Troy.
The unveiling ceremony for the William Pitsenbarger statue will be Saturday, Nov. 14, at 10 a.m. It will be held at the Pitsenbarger Park and Sports Complex.
“The Wright-Patterson Air Force base commander will be our guest speaker,” Ruth Koon, president of the Friends of the Piqua Parks, said. The dining hall at Wright-Patterson is named after William Pitsenbarger.
“Everybody in the Air Force knows that name,” Koon said.
The statue was thanks to a fundraiser the by Friends of the Piqua Parks who raised over $125,000 for both improvements to the landscaping in Pitsenbarger Park and Sports Complex as well as to build this statue.
Koon explained that the statue is an appropriate addition to the city as it honors Piqua’s Medal of Honor recipient.
“There are only about … 32,000 Medal of Honor recipients, and we have one from Piqua,” Koon said.
United States Air Force Pararescueman William H. Pitsenbarger, later promoted to Staff Sergeant posthumously, died at the age of 21 in 1966 during the Vietnam War while defending wounded comrades. Pitsenbarger was the first enlisted airman to receive the Medal of Honor and the Air Force Cross awards after his death.
Pitsenbarger flew on roughly 300 rescue missions during the Vietnam War. On his last rescue mission, Pitsenbarger stayed on the ground and tended to wounded soldiers on the ground before they were lifted up into a helicopter, according to Pitsenbarger’s Medal of Honor citation.
After nine soldiers were evacuated, the two rescue helicopters involved in that rescue mission came under enemy fire. Pitsenbarger refused evacuation for himself and decided to stay on the ground in the battle rather than get in the helicopter’s basket and escape with the helicopters.
During the battle, Pitsenbarger cared for the wounded, returned fire against the Viet Cong when he was able, and also distributed ammunition to other soldiers before losing his own life. Nine men survived that battle.
“There are a dozen facilities across the country named after William Pitsenbarger,” Koon said. “I think it’s an outstanding accomplishment for our organization as well as an overdue tribute to this young hero from Piqua.”
The ceremony will also feature the Air Force Band of Flight and the Air Force Honor Guard.
“It will be a very respectful tribute to this young man,” Koon said.