The bronze Icarus rises 12 feet above a marble pedestal, wearing a pilot’s helmet, combat boots and a knife strapped to his waist. It’s an odd piece of art that was erected in an open field that is now the heavily trafficked pathway between Alderman and Clemons libraries—where rushing students and passersby barely notice it at all.
The Aviator statue commemorates James Rogers McConnell, who was among the first UVA students to fight in World War I, the first of them to die, and the last American to be killed before the United States entered the conflict.
He arrived on Grounds from North Carolina in 1907, nursing, as his law professor Armistead M. Dobie later put it, “a hatred of the humdrum, an abhorrence of the commonplace, a passion for the picturesque.”
In 1910 McConnell—a member of T.I.L.K.A., the Hot Feet, the New York Club, the O.W.L. Society, and the Seven Society—withdrew from the University without a degree, and in 1915 he followed the war to France. As an ambulance driver, he joined ranks that included the writers e. e. cummings, Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos and witnessed many of the war’s horrors up close. He was awarded a Croix de Guerre for conspicuous bravery while rescuing a wounded French soldier.
Before the U.S. joined the war, McConnell enlisted in the French Air Service and became one of seven American pilots to form a squadron later known as l’Escadrille Lafayette. In a fight with three German Albatros biplanes, McConnell—who’d had a red “hot foot” painted on his Nieuport No. 2055—went down in northern France on March 19, 1917. The U.S. entered the war weeks later.
Almost immediately, his friends back home began collecting money for a proper memorial. In a letter at that time, UVA President Edwin Alderman expressed hope for a sculpture that would carry “a spiritual and patriotic appeal to future generations of youth.” Renowned sculptor Gutzon Borglum—who would go on to sculpt Mount Rushmore—was commissioned. He did deliver in June 1919, but not without a great deal of consternation throughout and up to the last minute.
As the unveiling ceremony—during final exercises—approached, Alderman grew “more and more uneasy” about the progress of the statue’s unfinished base, writing tense and beseeching letters to Borglum’s secretary. The statue still had not been properly affixed to its base even at the time of the ceremony—“A strong man could have pushed it off,” Alderman wrote a friend at the time.
Four days afterward, Alderman wrote Borglum’s secretary: “I am very happy over the dignity and splendid beauty of this figure. The delays and worries about it, however, have been, I think, quite abnormal. … It has been just two years in early July since the order was given, and it seems to me that we ought to have been free from the anxiety and worry that followed us up to the last minute.”
Borglum himself was a complicated character, an avowed anti-Semite and aeronautics buff who at the time was publicly accusing the U.S. aircraft industry of pro-German tendencies, according to Robert J. Neal’s book, Liberty Engine. He later joined the Ku Klux Klan and began carving a memorial at Stone Mountain that was ultimately replaced. In a letter to a friend, Alderman confessed that the unveiling ceremony had been accomplished “in spite of every apparent effort of Borglum’s.”
Alderman had not always been a fan of The Aviator’s form. In a 1918 letter to Borglum, Alderman suggested perhaps a more standard war memorial, with McConnell represented “idealistically in his uniform, with background showing the air and the machine, etc.”
Of course, that’s not what you see today.
Lynn Rainville, a research professor at Sweet Briar College who studies World War I memorials in Virginia, says The Aviator is uncommon for several reasons; first, it isn’t like other memorials of the time—obelisks, or representations of patriotic themes like eagles and flags. Nor is the statue like any of Borglum’s other work at the time. “It’s not like he was well-known for doing nudes,” Rainville says. “This wasn’t like hiring Michelangelo—of course, you get a nude, big surprise.”
The context at the time was also uncommon; it was installed in a wide-open field when a larger-than-life nude of that type would more likely be seen in a museum, she says.
Still, people seemed to like it, Alderman wrote at the time.
Over time, what made it interesting at first made it less so. In 1982 the Cavalier Daily called for its removal, suggesting that The Aviator was “kind of like the orange ceramic frog your parents got for a wedding present.”
But still The Aviator stands, not just a memorial to McConnell’s death or a grim tribute to the terrible costs of war. Instead, as its inscription suggests—“Soaring like an eagle into new heavens of valor and devotion”—it celebrates a spirit lofty enough to command a prime location, if not a lot of attention from passersby.