BUCKHANNON — On a crisp, fall evening, as the sun began to set and the azure sky filled with streaks of pink and gold, Ross Straight’s family, friends and admirers huddled around the late artist’s most famous work in Jawbone Park.
In their hands, they held Styrofoam cups of steaming hot cider and stood a little closer together to ward off the fall chill, as they gathered around the 650-pound bronze statue of the great Lenape Indian chieftain, Buckhongahela, cradling his dead son, Mahonegon, who had been murdered by Capt. William White in 1773.
Straight’s son, Hans, explained he and his father had braved far icier temperatures during the year Straight designed, fundraised for and ultimately crafted the downtown park’s artistic centerpiece.
“It was over a year of his life that he dedicated to doing this,” Hans explained to the attendees of Thursday’s Ross Straight Day, a special ceremony held in honor of Straight, who passed away unexpectedly Aug. 13, 2014. During Thursday’s event — held on what would have been Straight’s 66th birthday — the artist’s family unveiled a biographical plaque commemorating Straight’s many contributions to Buckhannon and rededicated the statue of Buckongahelas and son, Mahonegon, which is now lined with lights that illuminate it at night.
Not only did Straight single-handedly raise the more than $21,500 it took to create the statue, but he also attended night classes at Fred Eberle Technical Center to learn how to weld and even hand-picked the rock on which the statue now sits from a hill in French Creek in the middle of winter, his son said.
“He actually wrote a grant and was denied it once because they said, ‘you’ll never do this, you’ll never raise the money to do this,’” Hans recalled. “But he put it in again after he had raised part of the money, and he got that grant. Part of that was that he went to the trade school taking night classes to learn how to weld and got a welder so he could save money and put this together himself, and weld it and grind it.
“The rock is another good example,” Hans continued. “This rock wasn’t originally in Jawbone Park. The rock was in a field near French Armstrong’s property, but that wasn’t a field then — that was a hill. And I went out there with him in mid-winter, and he said, ‘there’s the rock it’s going to sit on,’ and I said, ‘Dad, no, no,’ and he said, ‘yes.’ We were out there in the middle of winter, blasting, with all the wind. We’d take turns hitting wedges, hitting wedges, and I would go to the truck and get warm, and then go back out. It wasn’t so bad after you got pretty numb. You can see here the marks where he, by hand, make hickory wedges, took his stone wedges, drilled down in here and wedged this off. He got it to crack, and they got a front-end loader up there and actually brought this stone out. That’s the kind of dedication – not just fundraising and doing the work – but he was completely dedicated to this vision happening for this community so we could remember what was here before us.”
The statue — which Straight was inspired to construct by one of his favorite historical novels, “The Scout of Buckongehanon” by J.C. McWhorter — was originally dedicated and installed in 2000, with the blessing of representatives from three Native American tribes. Among those representatives were the Delaware people, who once lived and hunted in the Buckhannon area, according to information on the new plaque.
In addition to Straight’s son, Straight’s friends, other family members and mayor David McCauley took a moment to honor Straight’s unique talent and drive at Thursday’s dedication.
“Ross’ art is not only aesthetically incredible, it tells our history,” McCauley said at the ceremony’s outset. “Ross was a student of both art and history. His work was universally championed by our Native American representatives. As a community, we are experiencing a Renaissance, a rebirth, our holistic reawakening, replete with new commitments to embracement and appreciation of our history, the arts, literature, and I suspect that nobody more than Ross Straight is responsible for propelling us unto the Renaissance mindset.”
After all, Ross Straight was the premier artist in town, one of his best friends and local architect, Bryson VanNostrand, said.
“He carried the torch in the community as being the lead artist in town,” VanNostrand said. “He was the guy, he was the artist.”
Another friend and city councilman, C.J. Rylands, said Straight, like other artists, had “a leg up” when he died.
“I think as we pass on, we live on in the people that we’ve touched, lived our lives with, but I think artists kind of have a leg up because they leave physical things of beauty for us to connect with that person, and Ross has a lot of that around here, including what’s right here,” Rylands said.
Straight is the man who designed Buckhannon’s city seal mural, located at the corner of West Main and Locust streets; it depicts the Lenape Indian chieftain Buckongahelas and frontiersman, Samuel Pringle. He was also the person who created the bronze Sago Miners’ Memorial and Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster First Responders’ Memorial, among other well-known pieces.
But he was so much more, according to Rylands, his friend Mike Oldaker and his mother, Leoma Straight.
“I never really knew he was a football fan, but if you haven’t been at a football game with him, he took it very seriously, and he didn’t care how much attention he drew,” Rylands recalled with a smile.
Oldaker remembered Straight as a “rascal” who “could bring a house down in more ways than one.”
“When he would dance, you would teter between, ‘is this guy really going to keep dancing like this?’ or ‘is this the way this guy actually dances?’ and after you got to be around Ross for awhile, you realized, that’s the way Ross dances,” Oldaker remembered with a chuckle. “And when Ross would open his mouth to sing, you didn’t want him to stop.”
But it was Straight’s 88-year-old mother, Leoma, whose pride in her son seemed to spill out into the audience, as she beamed radiantly, while remembering her third son.
“I should have known Ross was going to be an artist because when he was about 6 years old, he took a nail and drew a picture on my grand piano,” she said, “and then, when he was 7, he got some clay from a nearby creek and he sculpted a buffalo, and it looked exactly like a buffalo! It was just tremendous, and I thought, ‘man, he is good!’”
So when Leoma’s husband passed away in 2000, she asked her son to construct a statue in memory of his father, Charles, for the family’s church in Chillicothe, Ohio.
The final product?
“He took limestone and sculpted a big statue of Jesus, and he was holding a little girl in one hand and a little boy in the other hand, and on the statue is said, ‘Let the little children come to me,’ and it’s still in the church there where you enter …. And it’s just a tremendous thing,” Leoma said. “I’ve always been so proud of him. He was a wonderful son, my third son.”
In addition to his mother, Leoma, and son, Hans, Straight is survived by his wife, Molly, and grandson, Ronan. Straight was predeceased by his father, Charles, and son, Shane. The new plaque in Jawbone concludes with the words, “Our Buckhannon-Upshur community shall always fondly remember the colorful character, Ross Straight, and treasure his artistic genius.”