Luigi Del Bianco was arguably A CUT ABOVE the other stone carvers he worked with. But acknowledging that required a rewriting of the history of one of our nation's most beloved monuments. Jim Axelrod takes us to the Black Hills of South Dakota:
Mount Rushmore's designer once said he hoped the faces would remain unchanged "until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away." The monument, carved into granite, was designed to be as enduring as it was inspiring.
Which is why a ceremony held yesterday was so remarkable … as the National Park Service marked a change at Mt. Rushmore -- a small but significant revision to the story of its creation.
Forty-eight years after his death, an Italian immigrant named Luigi Del Bianco was officially recognized as Mt. Rushmore's chief carver.
As Luigi Del Bianco's grandson Lou explained to us, the chief carver was the master craftsman in charge of refining the expressions in the faces.
The twinkle in Abraham Lincoln's eye, and Thomas Jefferson's lips, are Del Bianco's work.
Since Rushmore's completion in 1941, the 400 laborers who worked on the mountain had always been saluted as a group. Butfor the last 30-plus years, the Del Bianco family has been making the case that Luigi wasn't just part of the crowd.
Axelrod asked, "If we're looking at Rushmore, what of Luigi Del Bianco's work am I seeing that separates him out and makes him deserving of his own plaque?"
"Well, when people tell me their impression of the faces, they say that there's a humanity in that granite," he replied.
And Luigi, his grandson is convinced, was the one who brought that humanity out.
Trained in Italy as a stone carver, Luigi Del Bianco came to America in 1908 at the age of 16, settling eventually in Port Chester, New York, where he opened a business making headstones.
"I can't tell you how many times an older person in town would say, 'Can you believe it? The man who carved the presidents' faces carved my mother's headstone. Unbelievable!'" Lou said.
Lou Del Bianco's grew up knowing all about his grandfather's special role at Rushmore. He obtained historical records from the Library of Congress, including a testimonial from Rushmore's designer, artist Gutzon Borglum: "He is worth any three men I can find in America for this particular type of work here and now."
But nothing he showed the Park Service would change the narrative ... at least not until Cam Sholley took over the regional office in charge of Rushmore.
The more Sholley read of what Lou sent him, the more he realized the story of Mount Rushmore needed re-writing. "I found myself wondering if we should change course here," Sholley said.
So he dispatched a couple of National Park Service historians to Lou's basement in Port Chester.
"They went through the booklet that I showed you," Lous recalled, "and by the fourth page, one of the historians said, 'Well, you sold me. Let's go have lunch.'"
And after years of making Luigi's case, the official policy was overturned.
"We have Luigi Del Bianco in that visitor center, pictures of him," Sholley said. "His name's in there. We just haven't called him 'chief carver.' And now, we will."
The decision made at headquarters may take a little while to filter down to the tours.
"We've got this recognition coming to Luigi Del Bianco. It's kind of a neat part of the story, isn't it?" Axelrod asked Ranger Dottie Helder.
"I don't know know that part of the story, so I can't say. I'm sorry," Ranger Helder replied.
"Are you going to have to brush up on Luigi?"
But Lou Del Bianco isn't concerned, knowing he's got history on his family's side … and now, a plaque to prove it.
For more info:
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota (National Park Service)
- Luigi Del Bianco Plaque Unveiling, Sept. 16 (nps.gov)
- "Out of Rushmore's Shadow: The Luigi Del Bianco Story - An Italian Immigrant's Unsung Role as Chief Carver" by Lou Del Bianco (Niche Content Press) (available via Amazon)
- "Through Lincoln's Eyes: The Fight for Luigi Del Bianco's Legacy" (YouTube)