A couple of weeks ago, Robert McCloskey’s 99th birthday passed with barely a whisper.
However, about two dozen dedicated Hamiltonians crowded into the Emma Ritchie Auditorium at the Butler County Historical Society last week to make sure that the late author, illustrator and favorite son gets all the recognition he deserves.
“While McCloskey’s birthday was Sept. 14, 1914, we plan to celebrate the life of this legendary icon throughout the year,” said Dave Belew, a member of the Heritage Hall advisory board. “We want to involve the community in a number of meaningful ways.”
McCloskey is a two-time recipient of the prestigious Caldecott Medal, considered the highest honor for authors of children’s books, for “Make Way for Ducklings” in 1942 and “A Time of Wonder” in 1958.
Three of his books — “Homer Price,” “Lentil” and “Centerburg Tales” — were inspired by his childhood in Hamilton, and many of the drawings in those books were inspired by the scenes in his memory of Hamilton.
“Lentil” has been honored locally by sculptor Nancy Schon with a rendition of the title character and his dog in a small park at the corner of High Street and Front Street. Schon also created sculptures based on McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings” that are in Boston, Mass., and Moscow, Russia.
The work of McCloskey is highly visible today in Hamilton as he designed the bas-relief sculptures and other details for the former Municipal Building, which was recently re-dedicated as the Mueller Building in honor of the architect, Frederick Mueller.
The sculptures and two cast aluminum pieces used around the doors on the west entrance of the building were commissioned by Mueller when McCloskey was only 19 years old. Mueller was impressed by McCloskey’s totem pole that he carved as a counselor at Camp Campbell Gard when was a Hamilton High School student.
McCloskey would later say, “I can’t imagine now an architect with the courage to turn a 19-year-old lose do do the sculpture for one of the most important buildings in town, but he did.”
Since 2007, the portion of the Mueller Building known as Heritage Hall has housed the Robert McCloskey Museum, which is “small but mighty,” Belew said, and includes original drawings and paintings by McCloskey as well as his two Caldecott Medals and other artifacts, including the famed totem pole from Camp Campbell Gard. A museum highlighting the work of Mueller as one of Hamilton’s premiere architects is also underway.
Heritage Hall has also produced a booklet for a Robert McCloskey Walking Tour, which takes visitors to the various homes he lived in and schools he attended and other landmarks associated with his life in Hamilton.
Gratia Banta, youth services director for Lane Libraries, recently published an article about how McCloskey was inspired by the sights of Hamilton in his books and told the ad hoc committee she knows first-hand how well his work has held up through the years.
“I read ‘Homer Price’ to some first, second and third graders last year and got gales of laughter,” she said.
Matt Smith, assistant director of the Michael J. Colligan History Project, an effort between the Hamilton Community Foundation and Miami University Hamilton, said that his group had already been discussing a year of McCloskey in partnership with Lane Libraries and had already planned to seek a speaker. The library also has plans underway to display a collection of 36 original McCloskey drawings in its possession that have yet to be on public display.
Organizers are hoping that people will come forward with memorabilia or even just memories of McCloskey that they are willing to share to celebrate the centennial. Anyone with such items can call 513-737-5958.