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Return Farnsworth statue to Capitol, urges former Ridgecrest principal

May 08, 2018 03:18PM ● Published by Julie Slama

The statue of Philo Farnsworth resides on the top floor of the Utah Capitol. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Gallery: Philo Farnsworth Statue [11 Images] Click any image to expand.

By Julie Slama | julie@mycityjournals.com

Martha Hughes Cannon hasn’t even made it to a mold let alone made it to Washington, D.C., and there already is a cry to return the current statue of Philo Farnsworth, which will grace the U.S. Capitol’s visitor center until 2020. 

After the Utah senate approved with a 21-7 vote this legislative session, Gov. Gary Herbert signed his approval to send a statue of Cannon — the nation’s first female state senator — to the U.S. Capitol, replacing the statue of National Inventors Hall-of-Famer Philo Farnsworth, who is known as the “father of television” for his discovery of the basic cathode ray tube.

“We understand they want to send the statue of Martha Hughes Cannon to commemorate the 19th amendment and mark 150 years since Utah women were the first to vote, but I don’t think the legislators realize what all Farnsworth did not only for our state, but for the nation and the world,” said Treva Barnson, who has become the voice for the former Ridgecrest Elementary principal and her husband, Bruce, who now has limited ability to speak. “We’re hoping that the Farnsworth statue will be placed in the Smithsonian and that in 10 years, he can rotate back in the Capitol.” 

Bruce Barnson, who nodded to his wife’s remarks, isn’t just playing favorites. Bruce was not only on the committee that spearheaded Farnsworth’s statue to be made for the U.S. Capitol — with secondary statues in the Utah Capitol and in his hometown of Beaver — but he is also familiar with Cannon, since he served on the committee for the Utah Capitol sculptures of her and Brigham Young.

“If you’re going to remove a statue from the U.S. Capitol, take Brigham Young down. He’s been there since 1950,” Treva said. “Farnsworth was a scientist and inventor who inspires so many students.” 

State representative Marie Poulson, who represents the Cottonwood Heights area, said there was talk “somewhat about replacing Brigham Young, but it didn’t go anywhere.”

Poulson said the statues in the Capitol aren’t permanent fixtures, but states are allowed to change them after a minimum 10-year period. It just hadn’t been well known until California’s recent decision to replace its statue in the Capitol with one of former President Ronald Reagan.

She also said  there was a group of school children who urged state leaders for the change. Five Westville Elementary girls from Utah County who lobbied for the change were even thanked at a March 27 Women’s History Month ceremony by Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams.

“This is a proud moment in our state and you must be so proud to be a part of it,” he said.

McAdams publicly thanked Salt Lake County Recorder Adam Gardiner, who had first introduced the bill last legislative session as a state representative.

“It was a great process for these girls to become advocates in this process,” he said, but also said that the girls’ effort was independent from his own. 

Gardiner said as an intern for U.S. Representative Rob Bishop, he learned the history of Philo Farnsworth, but he also discovered Bishop preferred Cannon to Farnsworth. 

“The more I learned about her, the more I became fascinated with her life and knew her movement should be represented. Eight years later, I was in our state legislature and I knew I could do something about it,” he said.

Cannon was a polygamous wife, physician, women’s rights advocate and suffragist, and became Utah’s first woman senator when she defeated her husband for the same seat. She also was a founding member of Utah’s first state board of health.

When Gardiner first introduced the bill, he said there was “a lot of uproar. I got more phone calls, hate mail, some love mail, on this bill more than any other.”

But he pursued the push for “the new generation of girls and kids who need representation. People don’t connect with Farnsworth, but with Martha, she represents every fraction — women, democrats, state’s rights. I hope they look at Martha and realize she is a great symbol and that she can stay a little longer than 10 years.” 

When Gardiner left to become county recorder, Senator Todd Weiler saw the bill through passage. Gardiner, who is “happy to see it happen,” said that House Bill 444 will appoint a committee to decide who will sculpt the new Cannon statue, plan a ceremony and where to put the current Farnsworth statue.

In addition to the rally to keep it in Washington, D.C., Beaver, Lehi — “Utah’s Silicon Valley” — and Rigby, Idaho, — where Farnsworth attended high school — all have expressed interest in housing the statue. 

While Treva Barnson said she’s happy new school children expressed their voice, she also points out it doesn’t match the “sweat and blood” the work started by Ridgecrest students and spread across the state in the late 1980s.

In a letter Bruce Barnson sent to each state representative and senator in January, he points out that after his fourth-grade students heard U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch say that Utah only has one statue in the Capitol, his fourth-grade students took action. They scoured their Utah history book compiling a list of every prominent name mentioned.  Then, the list was sent to every fourth-grade class across the state, asking for those students to vote. 

“Martha was not among those names on the list,” Bruce Barnson said.

They also polled people face-to-face in their communities, Treva Barnson said.

“The students researched and had people in the malls fill out questionnaires,” she said, adding that Farnsworth still prevailed.

At the legislature, Bruce Barnson took his advanced fifth- and sixth-grade students “to give them a challenge and let them learn how to advocate,” Treva Barnson said, adding that previously his students had advocated for laws to make the honeybee the state insect, to require child restraint seats and to prohibit a nuclear waste dump in or near a state park.

It took two legislative sessions for Farnsworth to be approved in1987 and three more years to fundraise $250,000 for the statue.

“Not a penny came from the state. The kids did a jillion things to raise money and local businesses came in with generous donations. After we had exhausted about every way possible, former Gov. (Scott) Matheson came through with his connections to help finish the financing,” she said.

Thirty-five sculptors were considered before the committee reviewed five wax figurines, including the one that was finally commissioned by James Avarti, who used a descendent of Farnsworth’s grandfather as his model.

Bruce Barnson, who has a smaller version on his coffee table, also said that the top Sterling Scholars have received a miniaturized version. A statue was given to Ridgecrest Elementary as well, which sat in the foyer when he was principal.

“I’m not sure those politicians did their homework and realize what they’ve done,” Treva Barnson said. “We had former students call asking what they could do. Some are even out-of-state and are lawyers. We asked they write the legislature.”

Former student Elizabeth Jensen was one of the former students who, after the former Jordan School District said no to sponsoring a school trip to Washington, D.C., joined the new start-up Ridgecrest Elementary Community Choir to sing at both the U.S. Capitol and Utah Capitol’s unveiling of the statue. 

“To be a fifth-grader and be able to go be part of the unveiling of the statue our school worked so hard for is something that all of us will remember,” Jensen said. “We learned the valuable lesson that Bruce taught us — we could make a difference and our voices could be heard.”

Much of the early paperwork of surveys, notes, committee minutes, letters and photos are in two binders, with the latter one residing with Barnsons, along with a medal Avarti created to fundraise and a bound book highlighting the program and the story of the Ridgecrest students’ efforts. 

Jensen, who has shared the story with her own daughters including that of meeting Farnsworth’s wife, “Pem,” also has a copy of the book, as do 10 school libraries in the current Canyons School District.  

“I remember we sang two songs written especially for the program and I remember standing on the risers when the blanket over his statue finally came off. The crowd went quiet. It was a memorable moment,” she said. 

Ridgecrest Elementary’s story is captured by docents at the capitol, who have told the Barnsons that it is a favorite statue of tour guides as well as many visitors, who learn the story behind his statue. 

“Farnsworth has done so much more. He has 160 patents including inventing the baby incubator, radar, infrared night vision lights used during World War II for surveillance, the gastroscope to detect ulcers and he was working on cold fusion and the technology that would become our cell phone when he died. Jake Garn recognized that and took his dissector tube when he went into space. Martha (Hughes Cannon) was elected first state senator and Utah has honored her with a statue here in our state,” Treva Barnson said. “Farnsworth is a big deal to the world. We need to bring him back to his place of honor.”

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