By Sean Newhouse / Tribune Content Agency
WASHINGTON — Explorer Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of the Titanic back in the day, but he can’t find Amelia Earhart. His search in July turned up nothing, unless you count some seaweed and a stray piece of metal. That means it’s back to square one for fans of the missing pilot.
One place they won’t have to look is the U.S. Capitol, even though a statue of Earhart was supposed to be installed in the building two decades ago.
The Kansas Legislature first voted to send Earhart to Washington in 1999, along with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The plan was for the aviator to represent her home state in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall collection, which is filled with the stony images of powerful American men — and just a handful of women. Earhart would replace a statue of abolitionist Sen. John James Ingalls, and Eisenhower would replace 19th-century Gov. George Washington Glick.
Ike arrived in 2003, but Earhart never made it. So where is she?
According to Jacque Pregont, a board member of the Atchison Amelia Earhart Foundation, the bronze is complete, but it hasn’t been installed yet because they’re waiting for approval of the pedestal.
Assuming that’s approved by the Architect of the Capitol, the finished pairing — both pedestal and statue — will have to be OK’d again by the AOC before it can be unveiled. The state government will also need to find a new location, most likely in Kansas, for the outgoing Ingalls statue.
“We’re excited to have Amelia in the Capitol … because she is an icon in American history (and) because of what it means to increase the visibility and notoriety of women who have made such an impact on this country,” Pregont said, declining to guess how much longer the process will take.
An AOC spokesperson confirmed that the Earhart statue is still in the approval phase and no installation date has been set.
The Statuary Hall collection dates back to the 19th century and contains 100 sculptures — two for each state. For years, state governments were stuck with their original choices, but that changed in 2000, when Congress passed a law allowing them to swap out one or both, provided they could raise the money to do it.
Kansas’ statue of Eisenhower was the first to be installed under the new law, helped along by the fundraising efforts of then-Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas.
Rep. Jim Ryun, who represented Atchison (Earhart’s birthplace), was expected to raise the cash for Earhart’s statue, but he was voted out of office in 2006.
Earhart’s statue existed in a bureaucratic purgatory until 2010, when Equal Visibility Everywhere, or EVE, a nonprofit that works to include more women in U.S. symbols, announced it would raise the funds and choose a sculptor.
Pregont from the Earhart Foundation said that while EVE President Lynette Long was “very helpful” at the beginning of the project, her group “never actually helped raise any funds.”
EVE did not respond to a request for comment, instead directing questions about the Earhart statue to Pregont.
A committee of Kansas locals, art experts, Pregont, Long and Earhart’s family chose the sculptors in 2013, and the Atchison Amelia Earhart Foundation was formed in 2016.
A twin of the statue destined for the Capitol will stand outside the Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum in Atchison. The museum’s website, brimming with outdated optimism, still lists the projected installation date for the Capitol statue as “later in 2018.”
If she ever makes it to Statuary Hall, Earhart will join nine other women in the collection, including Helen Keller (Alabama) and Sakakawea, also known as Sacagawea (North Dakota). Both were 21st-century additions, made as states grapple with how best to represent their histories. Keller replaced a politician and military officer who fought for the Confederacy.
A statue of Rosa Parks is also part of the collection, but it was approved and funded by Congress rather than a state.
Even with the delays, Earhart’s arrival at the Capitol could come sooner than any resolution to the mystery of how she disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937. July’s expedition to Nikumaroro atoll, led by Ballard and filmed by National Geographic, was just the latest to seek the wreckage of the Lockheed Model 10-E Electra Earhart flew as she tried to circumnavigate the globe — and one of many to come up empty-handed.
The National Geographic documentary will air Oct. 20.