DescriptionIf in years past you ever drove MLK Boulevard to the Cleveland Museum of Art, you probably noticed the formidable-looking bronze statue of Milan R. Stefanik towering over the boulevard's intersection with the little road (Jeptha Drive) that takes you up to the Museum parking lot. This statue--a source of pride for Cleveland's Slovak community, had been a featured monument in Wade Park for nearly 90 years .
However, on your next trip to University Circle, don't search for the statue in Wade Park. This memorial to Slovakia's greatest and most treasured national hero is no longer located there. As a result of extensive road and sewer construction work in Wade Park, the statute was moved in 2013 down the road to to the Slovak Cultural Garden in Rockefeller Park.
It's easy to understand why the memory of Milan Stefanik was so treasured by Cleveland's Slovak-American community and why even after 90 years moving his statue to a new location created some controversy in Cleveland's Slovak community.
Stefanik, son of a Lutheran minister, was born in 1880 in a village in what is today western Slovakia. In his youth, he was a brilliant student. He attended Charles University in Prague where he earned a PhD in Philosophy. In 1904, he immigrated to France where in the space of a decade he achieved an international reputation as a Renaissance man who excelled in a number of different fields of scientific endeavor.
In 1914, when World War I broke out in Europe, Stefanik joined the French Army and became a military pilot, flying missions against Axis forces in Europe. He also traveled around Europe and to the United States lobbying with Tomas Masaryk and others for the creation of Czechoslovakia. Stefanik was on his to the new republic in May 1919 to become its first defense minister, when his plane went down.
Within months of Stefanik's death, Cleveland's Slovak community undertook plans to have a statue sculpted in his honor. It was not an easy project, however, to complete. Slovak-American leaders in New York and in other U.S. cities argued that the statue should be placed instead in Washington, D.C. Some members of Cleveland City Council suggested that the statue should be located in a park in Garfield Heights. Cleveland's Slovak community, however, led by John Pankuch, a journalist and civic leader, was persistent and succeeded in erecting the statue in Wade Park--where, according to Pankuch, it would be visible to thousands of members of the general public who "would pass by [it] every hour."
In 1929, just five years after the statue was placed in Wade Park, a proposal was made to move it to the Slovak Cultural Garden that was being planned in Rockefeller Park. Drawings were made, footers were laid, and preliminary work to raise the statue off its pedestal was started. But then John Pankuch and others stepped in and persuaded the Slovak community to keep the statute in Wade Park where it remained until 2013.
Now as the centerpiece of the Slovak Cultural Garden, the Stefanik statue sits upon the same footers that were poured for it in the early 1930s when the Slovak Garden was first built. It sits between the busts and pedestals of two other Slovak cultural heroes, Jan Kollar and Father Stephen Furdek. While this move was not without controversy, many in the Slovak community say the statue has simply finally come home.