Scott Christiansen is a talented and committed historian for the city of Davenport in Iowa. I was so impressed with his review of “Out Of Rushmore’s Shadow” that I had to share it with you. I told Scott that I was so captivated while reading it that I forgot I was the author! If this doesn’t convince you to get my book than nothing will. Thank you, Scott, for your generous spirit and unmatched dedication to history.
— A cathartic journey of self-discovery and the righting of a seventy-five-year-old wrong —
“I think we all want to know where we come from; we all have a desire to explore the lives and the stories that led to our existence.”
For more than seventy-five years, millions have marveled at Gutzon Borglum’s massive Mt. Rushmore memorial, whose presidential faces have been chiseled into our collective conscience. Few, however, have the slightest inkling that it was Luigi Del Bianco’s “magic hands” that imbued the timeless soul into those iconic faces. Sadly, the Italian immigrant’s tireless and talented efforts were unacknowledged, like so much granite dust swirling around the dustbin of history.
Out of Rushmore’s Shadow is the poignant story of how grandson Lou Del Bianco’s dogged determination and artistic talents helped right this seventy-five-year-old wrong. Ironically, however, Luigi Del Bianco’s fascinating story is not the story in Out of Rushmore’s Shadow. His grandson’s twenty-five-year odyssey of self-discovery and DNA-driven destiny unexpectedly proves even more compelling and captivating. It grabs hold of the reader and won’t let go, making us empathetic participants in Lou’s cathartic journey.
— The one story the professional storyteller was always meant to tell —
“After twenty-five years of developing my expertise as a storyteller, this was the story
I had always been working towards. This was the story I was meant to tell.”
For the past thirty years, Lou Del Bianco has developed and refined his talents as a performer of educational one-man children’s shows combining storytelling, theater, and music. Ironically, it took him nearly as long to fully comprehend that his grandfather’s story was the one he was always meant to tell. This destiny had been foreshadowed years earlier, when as an eight-year-old, he’d told his classmates, “I wanna tell you about my grandpa. He was Luigi Del Bianco, the chief carver on Mt. Rushmore.” Little did the youngster know that he would spend more than twenty-five years in an effort to tell the world about his beloved grandpa.
Making the grandfather and grandson’s stories in Out of Rushmore’s Shadow all the more interesting is their symbiosis and almost eerie parallelism. This leitmotif is first articulated in the grandfather’s words to his six-year-old grandson: “I am Luigi; you are Luigi.”
— Passing the baton —
“I was feeling the burden and privilege of defending my grandpa’s forgotten legacy.”
To bring his artistic vision to fruition — to suffuse the presidential faces with soul, humanity, and “refinement of expression” — sculptor Gutzon Borglum needed the singular artistic talents of stone carver Luigi Del Bianco. Similarly, to bring his father’s story out of the shadows and assure his recognition as Mt. Rushmore’s chief carver, son Caesar Del Bianco needed his nephew Lou’s tenacity and unique storytelling abilities. As age and declining health exacted their inevitable toll on Gutzon Borglum and Caesar Del Bianco, both men passed the artistic baton, relying on the uniquely special talents of Luigi and Lou to finish their respective races.
Both men passing the metaphysical baton could be headstrong and irascible, thereby threatening the completion of the very tasks they’d entrusted. Artistic differences between Borglum and Luigi often “erupted in chaos,” only to be “resolved into a mutual understanding” borne of the two artists’ respect for one another. In like fashion, differences in how best to unearth and disseminate Luigi’s story often resulted in hard feelings and disagreements between Caesar and Lou, which eventually receded because of their love for each other and the grandson’s respectful deference to the son’s wishes.
— A painstaking process —
“Well, I don’t give up easily. You’ll be hearing from us again and again until the right thing is done.”
To carve the faces and instill them with humanity was a painstaking process taking many years, with battle after battle won one precious inch at a time. The dreaded pegmatite, an unstable mica and quartz-filled stone lurking in the mountain of granite, threatened to wipe out weeks or months of Luigi’s work in an instant. In addition to the daily and often dangerous struggles with his granite adversary, Luigi also had to endure long separations from his family, who for most of his time on the mountain, remained eighteen hundred miles away in Port Chester, New York. Making matters even more difficult, he had to fight the actions of the Rapid City office (the “local machine”), which undermined Borglum’s efforts to recognize the Italian immigrant’s special artistic talents in an appropriate monetary manner.
Grandson Lou Del Bianco faced similarly daunting obstacles in telling his grandfather’s story and achieving the rightful recognition of his great contribution to the Mt. Rushmore Memorial. The personality of the lovable but prickly Caesar Del Bianco was the incarnation of the unpredictable pegmatite, with the uncle’s neuroses and bouts of manic depression often threatening the two descendants’ shared goal of bringing Luigi’s contributions to light. Ferreting out Luigi’s story, organizing the research into a cohesive narrative, and cultivating the countless contacts needed to win the acclaim rightfully due his grandfather proved every bit as tedious and painstaking as carving the presidential faces out of the granite mountain.
While patiently chiseling away at the impediments preventing the acknowledgement of Luigi’s role as Mt. Rushmore’s chief carver, Lou also had to carve out the time required to develop his career as a children’s storyteller and to be a good husband to his patient wife Camille. While Luigi had to fight the Rapid City office’s narrow provincialism and discrimination in order to be paid a livable wage, Lou and his uncle Caesar faced an even more formidable and unyielding adversary, the National Park Service (NPS). It took fourteen years for Gutzon Borglum, Luigi Del Bianco, and four hundred workers to create the Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. It took grandson Lou Del Bianco almost twice as long to bring his grandfather’s contributions out of Mt. Rushmore’s shadow and into the light of public acclaim.
— A consummate storyteller —
It would be easy to lose the soul of Luigi and Lou’s respective journeys in a sea of sentimentality and to have their impact and raw emotion emasculated through overwrought hagiographical language. A consummate storyteller, Lou Del Bianco successfully resists this temptation, instead employing an economical, yet powerfully poignant style. When describing how silicosis (a lung disease caused by silica dust inhalation) eventually claimed his grandfather’s life, he captures the sad irony in but twelve words: “Luigi Del Bianco lived for his art. He also died for it.” When opining on his uncle Caesar’s failure to get to Mt. Rushmore, he skillfully conveys a myriad of emotions in a concise but tender paragraph: “He looked up at me from his bed and said, You’ve gotta take this over when I die. Then he called me something he hadn’t in a while — ‘My Nefoo.’ I looked down at those twinkling eyes and that twisted nose, and I smiled. Caesar passed away just two months later. I gotta get to Rushmore! This time, I bet he does.” And when the twenty-five-year battle to bring his grandpa out of the shadow of Mt. Rushmore had finally been won, Del Bianco deftly imbues the same degree of humanity into the unveiling of the bas-relief plaque as his grandfather did with Mt. Rushmore’s iconic presidential faces: “And Luigi? He’s been there all along. His spirit never left the mountain. I’m sure as Cam [Midwest Director of the National Parks, Cam Sholly] and I unveil that plaque, those long, sinewy arms will become young and strong again, helping us pull the sheet away as we change the historical record for good.”
— Transformative for both grandfather and grandson —
Luigi Del Bianco’s contributions to the Mt. Rushmore National Memorial and his struggles with the Rapid City Office were defining moments in his professional life. As he later remarked, “I’d do it again even knowing all the hardships involved. I would work at Mount Rushmore even without pay if necessary. It was a great privilege granted me.”
Lou Del Bianco conveys the same satisfaction and accomplishment in his struggle to win the acclaim rightfully due his grandfather. In Out of Rushmore’s Shadow, he’s created an indelible impression of a proud and talented Italian immigrant using his gifts to make his adopted home a richer place for all of us. But perhaps more importantly, Lou’s nuanced portrait of his grandpa teaches us an important lesson about self-discovery.
“We become better, fuller, richer people when we connect with the stories of our ancestors.”
Iowa City, March, 2018