Naperville unveiled a statue in Central Park recently to commemorate multiple milestones: the 200th anniversary of Illinois, the 50th public art installation of the city’s Century Walk group, and the world’s first statue to depict a young Abraham Lincoln laughing.
According to Mary Lou Wehrli, “Laughing Lincoln” began as the vision of her father, Don Wehrli, a colorful local salesman, community organizer and city councilman who got his start selling jams and jellies at Disneyland.
“I got involved in this project when my father passed,” Wehrli said. “It had been one of his wishes that there would be a statue of Lincoln where people could come and rub his nose. He really enjoyed seeing the shiny nose in Springfield.”
Wehrli and her six siblings approached Brand Bobosky, founder of Naperville’s Century Walk public art group, a non-profit that places public art throughout the city. Together they developed the concept of a young Lincoln to commemorate his little-known connection to Naperville.
When Lincoln was 30 years old, he served in the Illinois state legislature with the city’s founder, Joe Naper. Though the two often disagreed politically, Lincoln supported Naper’s efforts to carve DuPage County out of Cook County, with Naperville as the county seat. The county seat later moved to Wheaton, but Lincoln’s statue now resides in the park where Naperville’s courthouse once stood.
But why laughing Lincoln?
“He was a storyteller,” Wehrli said. “Telling gollywhoppers and slapping his knee and laughing. And I thought, Laughing Lincoln.”
The Wehrli family chose Wyoming sculptor David Alan Clarke to create the statue. He was on hand at the December 2nd dedication.
“It’s fun to be one of the Lincoln sculptors,” Clarke told the crowd of 150 people. “And to have something that is positively unique in the world.”
The unveiling ceremony also included a visit from Lincoln himself, Chicago Lincoln presenter Michael Krebs, who brought Lincoln’s unique brand of humor to the event.
“Stephen Douglas once said in a debate that I was two-faced,” Krebs (aka Lincoln) said. “I put it to you. If I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?”
With the statue now in place, Wehrli hopes it will inspire and attract people who are interested in art and community history. Overall, she hopes it will be a place of happiness. And that people will rub Lincoln’s nose.