Filed Under Race and Ethnicity

Milan R. Stefanik Statue

Finding a New Home for a Slovak Cultural Hero

In years past, when you traveled Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to the Cleveland Museum of Art, you likely noticed the formidable-looking bronze statue towering over the road's intersection with Jeptha Drive, the little road that takes you up to the Museum parking lot. The statue was erected as a memorial to Milan R. Stefanik, Slovakia's greatest and most treasured national hero. It had been a featured monument in Wade Park for nearly 90 years and was a source of pride for Cleveland's Slovak community. However, on your next trip to University Circle, don't going searching for this statue in Wade Park. It's no longer there. As a result of extensive road and sewer construction work in Wade Park, the statute was removed in 2013 from its site at this intersection and, in a somewhat controversial move, eventually relocated to to the Slovak Cultural Garden, down the road in Rockefeller Park.

It's easy to understand why the memory of Milan Stefanik is 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 this ethnic 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 becoming a military pilot, flying missions against Axis forces in Europe. Within a short time, he was promoted to the rank of general. In addition to his military duties, he traveled extensively in Europe and in the United States with future first president Tomas Masaryk and others lobbying for the creation of Czechoslovakia. After the war ended, Stefanik was returning to the new republic in May 1919 to become its first minister of defense, when the plane he was piloting--just after it had crossed over the border into Czechoslovak airspace, mysteriously crashed, killing him.

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 to complete. Slovak-American leaders in New York and in other U.S. cities argued that the statue should be sited in a more important venue, Washington, D.C. Back in Cleveland, some members of City Council wanted the statue to be located in a park in Garfield Heights. Cleveland's Slovak community, however, led by ethnic journalist and civic leader, John Pankuch, was persistent and succeeded in 1924 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 new 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 ever since until its relocation in 2013. Now as the centerpiece of the Slovak Cultural Garden, the Milan R. Stefanik statue sits on a pedestal that was built upon the same footers that the Slovak Civic League had poured for it in the early 1930s. It is situated between the busts and pedestals of two other Slovak cultural heroes, poet Jan Kollar and Stephen Furdek, the father of American Slavs. While, as noted, this move was not without controversy, many in the Slovak community shrug it off and say that the statue has simply finally come home.


Cleveland Stefanik Statue
Cleveland Stefanik Statue 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. Creator: Jim Dubelko Date: May 2013
Stefanik visits the United States
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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


Slovak Cultural Garden, Cleveland, OH


Jim Dubelko, “Milan R. Stefanik Statue,” Cleveland Historical, accessed June 18, 2024,