Plains Folk

Reluctant Hero


Dedicated in 1997 by President Bill Clinton, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington stirred controversy as to how the great president should be depicted. During his lifetime President Roosevelt preferred to downplay his disability owing to polio and to keep his wheelchair out of public view. By the late 20th century, however, disability advocates wished to highlight FDR’s disability. The memorial designer decided to cloak the wheelchair, in keeping with FDR’s historic practice, but that did not settle the matter. In 2001, due to the efforts of the National Organization on Disability, another statue of FDR, this one showing him in his wheelchair, was emplaced at the entrance to the memorial.

The episode of the FDR memorial is a textbook case in the struggle over the meaning of monuments. Now, thanks to the research of one of my fine seminar students, Zach Jendro, I know about the time when people in North Dakota, similarly, and a decade earlier, deliberated about how to depict a disabled person with a monument. The bronze statue of Anne Carlsen that stands today in Jamestown is a monument to a reluctant hero.

Anne Carlson was born in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, in 1915. She had no lower arms, one leg was short, and the other was malformed, but as she grew up, she demonstrated keenness of intellect and strength of will. Her father, too, was supportive of her ambitions. In an unusual move for those days, Anne’s parents mainstreamed her into the public schools. At age twelve she moved on to high school in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1936 she graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota.

After graduation Carlson rode a Greyhound bus to Fargo to take a teaching position at the Good Samaritan Crippled Children’s Center. She considered this her dream job, despite the poor finances and limited facilities of the institution. In 1940 the Lutheran Hospitals and Homes Society bought the school, moving it west to a new location along the James River. Thus began a series of improvements in facilities, as well as redefinition of philosophy and program in line with changing American attitudes toward disability.

Anne Carlson was in the middle of these developments. After earning her MA from Northern Colorado and her doctorate from Minnesota, she came back to the little school in North Dakota as a guidance counselor. After that she was administrator of the school for thirty-one years, retiring in 1981 after overseeing continual growth and improvements. In 1908 the board of the institution changed its name to the Anne Carlson School.

The board also decided to commission a bronze statue of Dr. Carlson that would stand outside the school as an example to students and their families. The well-known sculptor Elmer Peterson proposed to depict Carlson with her crutches, her disabilities visible to all.

Carlson was reluctant to become a monument. According to Peterson and others, she was modest about her accomplishments. There is, however, no record that she had reservations about having the school named after her. Thus it was the monumental incarnation of her disabilities that must have troubled her. Perhaps she doubted the capacity of the public to accept such a depiction. Eventually she relented, with the understanding that the statue would portray her in a supportive position to a disabled boy, a student.

So there she stands in Jamestown, and I do mean stands, as the very model and example she was intended to be. The Anne Carlson statue was dedicated in 1985, one little marker in North Dakota of evolving views of disability and ability in America.


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