The Milan R. Stefanik Statue

Finding A New Home for a Slovak Cultural Hero


If 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.

Photos Show

Cleveland Stefanik Statue - May 2013

The Cleveland Slovak community's monument to the memory of Milan R. Stefanik stood in a prominent place in Wade Park for 89 years. This photo was taken just weeks before extensive road and sewer construction work in the University Circle area compelled the removal of the statute from that site. The statute was temporarily moved to the site of a monuments company--ironically, the same company that had erected the statue in Wade Park in 1924. In October, 2013 the statue was moved to the Slovak cultural garden in Rockefeller Park.

Image courtesy of Jim Dubelko

Stefanik visits the United States

In 1917, Milan R. Stefanik, an ethnic Slovak who became a general in the French Army (shown in his uniform in the above photo), traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby the United States government to support the proposal to create a Czechoslovak republic in post World War I Europe.

Image courtesy of the Slovak Institute

Wreckage of Stefanik Plane

On May 4, 1919, Milan R. Stefanik and three Italian soldiers died when the Caproni military plane in which they were traveling crashed near an airport located just outside of Bratislava. While the cause of the crash has never been determined, for years many Slovaks believed that the plane had been intentionally shot down by the Czechoslovak army acting under orders from the national government in Prague.

Image courtesy of the Slovak Institute

Stefanik in Coffin

This graphic photo shows Milan R. Stefanik shortly after his death on May 4, 1919, with blood on his face and still wearing his aviator uniform.

Image courtesy of the Slovak Institute

Pankuch at the Stefanik Statue

John Pankuch, an ethnic journalist and early leader of Cleveland's Slovak community, was perhaps more responsible than any other person for successful completion of the task to build a monument to Milan R. Stefanik in Cleveland. Here, Pankuch (third from left) is shown with other members of the Cleveland Slovak community laying wreaths at the Stefanik statue on May 5, 1935. Just one year earlier--in 1934, Pankuch had finally prevailed in his efforts to thwart the proposal of the Slovak Civic League to move the statue to the new Slovak cultural garden in Rockefeller Park.

Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection

Czechs gather around Stefanik

As one of the founders of Czechoslovakia, Milan R. Stefanik, an ethnic Slovak, was also a respected figure in the Cleveland Czech-American community. In this 1936 photo, a delegation from Czechoslovakia and Cleveland Czech leaders lay a wreath at the Stefanik statue.

Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections

The Milan R. Stefanik Statue

This sketch of the Milan R. Stefanik Statue appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1960. The Stefanik statue on the traffic circle at MLK Boulevard and Jeptha Drive peered down at passing Cleveland motorists, according to one newspaper account, with "piercing eyes [and an] almost hypnotic stare" for nearly 90 years until it was removed from Wade Park in 2013.

Image courtesy of Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections

Stefanik Tomb

Shown above is the mammoth monument in Brezova pod Bradlom ("Bradlo"), Slovakia, built over the grave of Milan R. Stefanik. An astronmer, military hero,and co-founder of Czechoslovakia, Stefanik's memory has been honored around the world with memorial monuments and by organizations, buildings, and places named after him, including an asteroid (3571 Milanstefanik).

Masaryk next to Stefanik

In Kosice, the second largest city in Slovakia, a bust of Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, first president of Czechoslovakia, is located in a city park next to one of Milan R. Stefanik. Stefanik was a student of Masaryk at Charles University and later became a co-founder with him and Edvard Benes of the First Czechoslovak Republic. Placing Stefanik's bust on a pedestal next to, and at the same height as, that of the first President of Czechoslovakia is an expression of the high regard in which Slovaks continue to hold the memory of Milan R. Stefanik.

Stefanik Statue in Prague

The statue shown above was erected in Prague in 1928. It depicts Milan R. Stefanik as an aviator, thus emphasizing his military, rather than his scientific or political, achievements. The statue, however, is located, in front of the Stefanik Observatory on Petrin Hill, which is an acknowledgement of Stefanik's contributions to the advancement of science.

Stefanik Statue in Bratislava

During the communist era, a statue which had been erected in Bratislava in 1938 to honor Milan R. Stefanik, was discarded. After the fall of communism in eastern Europe, the Slovaks replicated the 1938 statue of Stefanik. In 2009, the 26-foot tall statue was placed in front of an 88 foot obelisk with a statue of a lion atop it, at the M.R. Stefanik airport in Bratislava. The Slovaks thus utilized scale and grandeur to memorialize the accomplishments of Milan R. Stefanik.

The General at his New Home

The Milan R. Stefanik statue sits in its new home in the Slovak cultural garden in Rockefeller Park. For almost 90 years it peered down at motorists and pedestrians on MLK Boulevard. Now--as this photo reveals, it stares down instead at the bust of Father Stephen Furdek, often called the Father of American Slavs. The statute was moved to this site in early October 2013.

Image courtesy of Jim Dubelko

Cite this Page

Jim Dubelko, “The Milan R. Stefanik Statue,” Cleveland Historical, accessed January 27, 2015, http:/​/​clevelandhistorical.​org/​items/​show/​611.​
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