For the past month, Ben Franklin has been Franklin Strong, covered in blue paint and wearing the names and jersey numbers of two teens who died in June.
But in the past, Ben’s also been pink with a white bra for breast cancer awareness. He’s sported red and white stripes with the message “Where’s Waldo?” He’s masqueraded as Peyton Manning in a No. 18 Indianapolis Colts jersey. And Ben’s dressed in camouflage to support troops serving around the world. In between those wardrobe changes, he reverts to a standard gray from head to toe.
Painting the statue at the corner of Monroe Street and Branigin Boulevard has been a tradition for more than 40 years, one that the college and the community doesn’t want to see stopped, even if it is damaging the local landmark. A contractor will begin a series of repairs Monday to remove layers of paint and fix crumbling parts of the statue. It has been more than 10 years since the last major restoration work and the tradition of painting the statue is causing the limestone base to crack and break.
A new sealer coat that will be put on at the end of restoration might prevent paint from sticking or could just make the statue easier to clean, the contractor said. But hopefully the work will not bring an end to the tradition, Franklin College President Jay Moseley said.
“It’s a good thing. It’s a fun thing, when it’s appropriate,” Moseley said. “Something that makes a point and is a point the community values, that’s a fine thing for Ben Franklin to be associated with.”
When it’s done in an effort to support a cause or for special events, it’s not a tradition the college is trying to stop, Moseley said. Instances where people do something creative, appropriate and even ask the dean of students before painting is fine, he said. The college doesn’t have the same tolerance for people who haphazardly toss a bucket of paint from the sidewalk and then leave the paint can on the ground, but the good aspects of the tradition typically outweigh the bad, Moseley said.
Painting the statue has been a tradition for nearly as long as the statue’s been on campus. After arriving in 1963, within five years students had started to paint the statue, but typically only once per year after commencement, according to newspaper articles on the statue’s history kept at the Hamilton Library. In the 1970s, the statue was painted a few times per year before events such as homecoming.
By the 1980s, the statue was being painted frequently both for events and fun. In 1983, like this year, the college was searching for workers to remove paint and restore the statue.
The tradition has become more than just an annual prank by students as the paint jobs often reflect what is important in the community at the time, Franklin College board of trustees member Steve Huddleston said. For example, the current Franklin Strong paint job was another way to show support for teens Jason Moran and Michael Chadbourne, who died after a swimming accident in Edinburgh.
Normally the college repaints the statue gray after a few days, but the blue paint has remained for about month. The contractor doing the restoration was planning to start on the project just after the tragedy, but the college delayed the work so that the paint job could stay up a little longer, said Dennis Drake of Drake Construction and Remodeling. With the work starting next week, Drake is concerned that people will be upset as they start stripping the paint off, he said.
In the past, Franklin College officials have discussed trying to stop people from painting the statue but have generally looked the other way because of the tradition’s value to the community, Huddleston said. That’s not always the case, as three students were each fined $100 after being caught painting the statue in 1995, according to an article in The Franklin from 1996.
The tradition is something most colleges can’t lay claim to, Huddleston said. If he and friends would have painted a statue when he was attending Indiana University, he would have ended up in the dean’s office or police station — regardless of the message, he said.
“He’s current with what’s going on in the community and the college. It’s almost like saying Ben cares. It’s Ben’s reflection of ‘I care, too,’” Huddleston said.
When not supporting a local cause, such as Relay for Life or breast cancer awareness, Ben has worn a variety of sports jerseys, displayed messages to beat various sports rivals, especially Hanover College, and worn Greek letters of local fraternity houses.
Sometimes the paint jobs are just colorful or for fun, such as when students gave Ben green hair and a Chicago Bulls jersey to look like Dennis Rodman in the 1990s when Mayor Joe McGuinness was a student on campus. Although he spent four years on campus and lived in a fraternity house just down the block, McGuinness never found an opportunity to paint Ben, he said.
The various paint jobs make the statue a local attraction, and the tradition is a great way for the campus to express itself to the rest of the community, board of trustees member and Franklin College alumnus John Auld said.
“It’s kind of turned into a deal where you want to see what’s gone up next. It’s kind of like turning on Google and seeing what Google has posted on their website,” Auld said.