One year to go.
Sometime in December 2009, if all goes as planned, the Pee Dee town of Bishopville will unveil its long-awaited tribute to perhaps its most famous athlete — no, scratch that; its most famous citizen — Felix “Doc” Blanchard, known to generations of football fans as “Mr. Inside” when he was a Heisman Trophy-winning fullback at Army from 1944-46.
The tribute — a three-statue bronze commemoration of Blanchard as a young boy, as a football hero and as an Air Force fighter pilot — will, when completed by sculptor and Columbia native Robert Allison, stand in a park setting near the town’s Woodward Public Library on Main Street. The figures will be larger than life, much as is Blanchard’s legend.
Janson Cox cannot wait. He is the executive director of Bishopville’s S.C. Cotton Museum, where the first statue — Blanchard as a young boy, astride an eagle — is displayed for now in the museum’s lobby. He and others, among them Blanchard’s sister, Mary Elizabeth Blanchard of Sumter, have helped direct the drive, which began in 2002, to raise the $100,000-$135,000 needed to complete the project.
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“(The statues are) designed to be touched and felt; that’s the whole idea behind outdoor sculpture,” Cox said. “We’re down to the last two figures, and then we have to get the poses right to have the effect we want.”
The figure of the young boy — which Cox admits does not look quite like the young Blanchard; “Doc was a big boy, which didn’t come across right, so we went more generic” — will be flanked by the fullback wearing No. 45 and the pilot, both looking inward: symbolic of who Blanchard became and where he got his start.
The project has taken this long, Cox said, because of tough economics in a small town — “We still need another $20,000,” he told the Sumter Daily Item in October — and because for too many years, Blanchard’s ties to Bishopville went largely overlooked by locals. It took a visit in 2001 by Dick Adams, a Louisville, Ky., resident and lifelong Blanchard fan, to awaken the town to what it had — and what it was losing.
Half a continent away, in the San Antonio suburb of Bulverde, Blanchard, who turns 84 this month, lives a quiet life with his daughter. His health is good, she said, but macular degeneration and the onset of dementia have led her to limit outside contact with her father.
“He doesn’t do so well with conversations,” Resa Blanchard said. “It’s horrible, because he was always so intelligent, but now he forgets things.”
The odds are against Blanchard being able to return to see his hometown’s tribute, Resa and Mary Blanchard said. In October 2002, though, when the project was getting started, the old soldier came back to see a smaller replica of the planned statues, and to have a portion of U.S. 15 leading from I-20 into Bishopville dedicated to him.
“(The statue project) is quite an honor, really,” Blanchard told a reporter in 2004. “I’m appreciative of that.”
Even then, Resa said, her father was not one to dwell on such honors. “He’s not someone to talk about the ‘good old days,’” she said. “He always said if you toot your own horn, you’re probably not half as good as you thought you were.”
Mary Blanchard, 80, a retired physician living in Sumter, agrees. “He’ll be very pleased and honored,” she said, “but (accomplishments such as his) were expected in our family.
“All that notoriety was hard for my brother. We had been preached to us by our daddy that, no matter how much fame we got, to remember that didn’t make us any better than the least sharecropper in Lee County.”
In fact, Doc Blanchard was every bit as good as others thought, and even more than that. Soon, visitors to his hometown will get an inkling of how good.
A BOY’S RISE
Until recently, Blanchard would make occasional trips east to visit his sister and join her for fishing on Lake Marion. There, friends said, they would squabble good-naturedly, as siblings do, and share memories of growing up in Bishopville.
Dr. Felix Blanchard, Doc’s father and the source of his nickname, moved the family to the town when his son was 8. They lived in a house on Church Street where, a reporter noted in 2004, Doc’s “F.A.B” initials can be seen carved in a fireplace mantle.
The young Blanchard grew up big — he was 5-foot-10 as a 12-year-old — and excelled at many sports, notably tennis. But football became his passion early, and he went out for junior varsity at 12. One coach told his father his son would never make it; Felix Blanchard urged his son to ignore the coach.
“Daddy always told Bubba, ‘You’ll be the greatest fullback since Bronko Nagurski,’” Mary Blanchard said. “So it was no surprise when that came about.”
He left Bishopville at 13 for prep school at St. Stanislaus College in Mississippi, where his talents emerged. In the era of one-platoon football, Doc ran the ball, played linebacker, punted and kicked. “Mr. Everything,” his sister said in 2004.
In 1942 he headed to North Carolina, where he played one season for the Tar Heels, then was drafted into the Army in 1943. Soon after, Earl “Red” Blaik, West Point’s legendary coach, helped secure an appointment to the academy — and a place on Blaik’s powerhouse team.
From 1944-46, Army went 27-0-1, winning three national championships behind the running of Blanchard and halfback Glenn Davis, aka “Mr. Outside.” In 1945, Blanchard rushed for 718 yards and 19 touchdowns and became the first junior to win the Heisman (Davis won the trophy the following season).
Bishopville that year hosted a banquet in his honor, and the trophy stayed there until Blanchard’s mother (his father died in 1944) and sister moved to McColl in 1950. Today, the Heisman resides at St. Stanislaus, Resa Blanchard said.
Blanchard later flew jets for the Air Force in Vietnam and retired as a colonel in 1974. In Bishopville, the memories faded over the years for all but a few aging friends and fans.
Then, 27 years later, Dick Adams came along.
A FAN’S QUEST
Adams grew up in Harrisburg, Pa., and in 1944 when he was 8 years old, he fell in love with Army football and Doc Blanchard. “I used to rearrange my schedule so I could listen to games on radio,” the 72-year-old said.
After his parents took him to the 1945 Army-Penn game, and again in 1946, “I became a died-in-the-wool Army fan,” he said. “And you can’t talk about Army without Doc Blanchard.”
In April 2001, Adams was in Charleston for a wedding, and en route home he decided to make a detour to Bishopville to see if there was “any kind of recollection of Doc Blanchard.” He arrived on a Sunday afternoon and asked townspeople, only to be met by a lot of “Who?” responses.
Upset, Adams wrote the Lee County Messenger, whose sports editor put him in touch with the town’s mayor. “I told them, ‘It’s almost criminal that you have someone from your town with his career, football and military, and there’s no recognition,’” he said.
Things began to change after Adams made contact with Mary Blanchard and Bishopville Fire Department Chief Ronnie Williams. That, in turn, led to the U.S. 15 dedication and a banquet attended by Doc Blanchard.
Adams laughed at his recollection of that night. “(Friends) John and Mary Naber, who were there, are staunch Notre Dame fans,” he said. “I introduced them to Doc and asked about (this year’s) Army-Notre Dame game. Doc said, ‘Well, in 1944-45, we whipped them by 107 (59-0 and 48-0).’ It was just good-natured razzing by him.”
Since making a contribution to the statue fund, and helping Williams and Mary Blanchard put together a scrapbook on Doc, Adams has followed the project’s progress from afar. He said he was unaware of the tentative December 2009 completion date but will try to be there.
It saddened him to learn Blanchard likely will not be able to attend. But it affirmed, he said, his conviction to get the project rolling.
“That was one of the points I pushed with the mayor,” Adams said. “I said, ‘Don’t wait until he’s gone. He’s alive and well, and he deserves the honor. A lot of people (around the country) don’t know Bishopville, but they know Doc Blanchard.’”
A SCULPTOR’S VISION
In Denver, Robert Allison has access to four or five foundries within an hour’s drive. No such foundries exist in South Carolina, a big reason the Columbia native, 53, moved his sculpting business to Colorado.
His works include a statue of the Biblical Jonah and the whale at Shandon Baptist Church, another of children in front of Palmetto Health Richland. His work on the Blanchard statues has been a rewarding, if sometimes frustrating, endeavor, he said.
“The physical work doesn’t take that long, but the fund-raising took time,” he said. Now that completion is within sight, Allison said, he feels an eagerness to pull the three elements of the project together.
The statue of Blanchard as a boy stands 5-foot-6 (including the eagle and pedestal) and weighs about 250 pounds, he said. The football player and pilot will each be about at least 6 feet tall and weigh 300-400 pounds.
Once completed — “I don’t like giving (completion) dates until everything is in metal,” Allison said — the 2-foot sections will be assembled and the statues shipped to Bishopville, where the artist will oversee final placement.
“I can’t wait,” Allison said. “The reaction to the boy and eagle was so positive (when delivered in October).”
To accurately portray Blanchard the football player, Allison viewed a 1940s movie, “The Spirit of West Point,” in which Blanchard and Davis portrayed themselves. “Doc was a solid young man, and I wanted to make sure the statues give that impression,” Allison said.
“You want to get his youthful — I don’t want to say ‘cockiness’ — but that confidence. From watching the movie and talking with those who knew him, though, he didn’t have a big ego; he was very humble, down-to-earth, but he had that confidence.”
Allison envisions an air of nobility in the three statues, and he enjoyed the rare opportunity to portray a subject at different stages of his life. A lifelong fan of Myrtle Beach’s Brookgreen Gardens, he hopes Blanchard’s statues will affect those who see them similarly.
“That’s the neat thing,” he said. “I get attached to all my works ...” His voice trailed off. Statues of heroes, it went unsaid, are special.
A LEGEND’S HUMBLE NATURE
Janson Cox in 1996 traveled to West Point with his son, an incoming cadet. He remembers two things about the trip.
“There’s the tunnel under one of the streets that has a frieze of famous cadets, and Doc is one of the first figures on the right side,” he said. And whenever he was introduced as being from South Carolina, “everyone would say, ‘Oh, you know Doc, don’t you?’” he said.
In the four years his son spent at the academy, “I got to learn a lot about Doc,” Cox said. That’s why he wanted to be involved with the project started by Adams, “who brought everyone to their senses.”
On this day, Cox spoke enthusiastically about the statue in his museum’s lobby, and the replacement sign, just inside the building’s front door, that will go up soon along I-20 and reads, “Hometown of Doc Blanchard.” The sign, he said, features the Heisman Trophy’s trademark image, which required special permission.
Then Cox paused. He talked about meeting Blanchard in 2002, how “he wasn’t overly excited about doing (the banquet and dedication ceremony); he wasn’t looking for a special tribute.
“We do a (World War II) veterans’ oral history for the Library of Congress, and you hear the same thing from other men of that generation: ‘I was just doing a job, I was nothing special.’ But we know differently. He was a man of few words, but he was quite a leader — in sports, in the military, in life.”
Cox’s comments echoed those of Resa Blanchard. “I don’t think he would think (Bishopville) owed him anything,” she said. “What he did, he did for himself, his family, his team. He didn’t do it so he could have a statue. He would think it was a compliment, but not anything he was owed.”
Cox, politely, would disagree. That’s why the project — and its completion, soon — are so important.
“I hope he hangs in there long enough for us” to honor him, Cox said. “I do not expect him to get back here for that. But we’re not going to let him be forgotten.”
One year to go.
Staff writer Steve Wiseman contributed to this story. Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.