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Frozen in time

Courtesy of Emma Waldman

John L. “Jack” Swigert Jr. was selected as the second Coloradan to be honored with a statue in the nation’s Capitol complex. Swigert’s statue was moved from a dark Capitol hallway to the Capitol Visitors Center in 2008.

By Paige Jones
Herald Staff Writer


Coloradans visiting Washington, D.C., may find themselves greeted by a familiar face upon entering the Capitol.

Clothed in an astronaut suit with both hands cupping a space helmet, Coloradan John L. “Jack” Swigert Jr. welcomes millions of visitors each year.

The former astronaut and Congressman-elect is one of two historical figures from Colorado memorialized in the halls of Congress.

Each state donates two statues of notable, deceased figures to the National Statuary Hall to exhibit their contributions to the state’s history, according to the Architect of the Capitol website.

Swigert served as one of three astronauts on the tumultuous Apollo 13 moon mission in 1970.

The Denver native was named command module pilot 72 hours before takeoff. Swigert was chosen as Thomas Mattingly’s replacement largely because of his experience as a combat pilot in Korea during the 1950s.

As man’s third journey to the moon, the astronauts intended to further explore the moon’s craters. However, a ruptured oxygen tank cut the mission short, forcing the trio to navigate back to Earth using a small lunar module as a lifeboat.

After his return to Earth, Swigert entered politics in 1977 and was elected to the House of Representatives to represent Colorado’s 6th district in 1982. He died later that year of bone cancer before taking office.

A bronze statue of Swigert now stands tall and proud in the Capitol Visitor Center, towering above the daily hustle and bustle of the nation’s capital.

A replica of the Swigert statue can be seen in Denver International Airport.

The statue first arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1997 as a gift from the state of Colorado at the suggestion of his successor, former Rep. Daniel Schafer.

In addition to Swigert, Colorado chose to honor Dr. Florence Sabin, a Central City native.

Sabin debuted as the third woman to be honored in the National Statuary Hall and Colorado’s first statue in 1959, according to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.

Sabin is best known for modernizing Colorado’s public health system with the “Sabin Health Laws,” which allocated additional funding to the health department and resolved issues of sanitation.

Her commitment to Colorado’s health continued as she donated her salary to medical research while managing Denver’s health and charities in her old age.

She also pioneered the field of medicine for women by becoming the first female to graduate from Johns Hopkins Medical School in the late 1800s.

Congress created the National Statuary Hall in 1864 after the House outgrew the chamber and moved to its current location in the House of Representatives wing of the Capitol. Under the law, all statues were to be placed in the hall on exhibition.

However, overcrowding soon became a problem. The hall reached a maximum of 65 statues in 1933 and no longer would be able to support the weight of additional figures, the website said.

To address this, Congress amended the law so that the statues could be placed throughout the Capitol. Some statues were taken out of the Statuary Hall, but this did not affect Colorado because its first statue arrived more than 20 years later.

The creation of a statue begins at the state level, according to Eva Malecki, communications officer for the Architect of the Capitol.

“The state has to pass a resolution saying ‘we want to honor this notable citizen from our state,’” she said.

After the state governor approves the legislation, notification of the proposed statue is sent to the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress, a bipartisan committee of congressmen.

Once accepted, the state then will work with the Architect of the Capitol to “guide the process,” according to its guidelines.

“The state has to make accommodations (for the statue such as) hiring a company that specializes in moving artwork,” Malecki said.

State statues typically are displayed in the Capitol Rotunda for six months before being moved to their permanent location, Malecki said. The bronze statue of Sabin was first unveiled in the Rotunda before being moved to the Hall of Columns.

A Joint Committee on the Library decides the statue’s permanent location based on certain considerations, including the statue’s weight and height, Malecki said.

However, statues have been transferred to more visible spots in previous years. The statue of Swigert was moved to the Visitors’ Center in 2008 from its previous location in “a dark corner of a Capitol hallway” under requirements of subsequent legislation.

All states have donated a statue to the collection, which began with Rhode Island’s Nathanael Greene in 1870 and ended in 2005 with the completion of Po’pay from New Mexico.

However, Congress passed a law in 2000 permitting states to replace current statues with new ones. Four states have used the legislation, including Alabama for replacing a statue of Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry in favor of Helen Keller in 2011.

There has been no expressed interest to replace either of Colorado’s current statues.

Other artwork within the Capitol pertaining to Colorado includes a portrait of Edward Taylor, a former representative from Colorado, on display in the House wing. Certain columns and sections of walls throughout the building are made from marble obtained from Colorado.

Paige Jones is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald. Reach her at pjones@durangoherald.com.

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