Gloucester Icon a Winner

By John J. Ronan

Boston Herald, Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Man at the Wheel

He’s looking toward the

harbor, and past

The harbor to the ocean,

past the ocean,

Vision fixed in another

dimension

That two bits tell you is time.

The schooner’s easterly out

of Gloucester,

America aft, the waking

states,

As the seaman leans into

dirty sea,

Tomorrow’s tack, at the

helm of everything.

On Feb. 9, Governor Duval Patrick opened an online, three-week voting period to allow the commonwealth’s citizens to choose the image that would decorate Massachusetts’ new quarter.

One hundred sites were on the ballot, culled from an original list of more than 4,000. By the time the election closed on Feb. 26, Gloucester’s The Man at the Wheel had won in a landslide. The new round of coins, from all the states, will begin appearing in 2010.

The Gloucester statue collected 109,817 votes, with Lowell’s National Historic Park a distant second at 26,582. Salem’s House of Seven Gables logged only 10,028 votes and the USS Constitution in Boston, 8,890.

Why Gloucester? Lowell and Salem are worthy cities. And Boston’s Old Ironsides is a revered heirloom. With a population of just 30,000, Gloucester is not large enough to stuff the ballot box. Neither was there any Us vs. Them factor, as when David Ortiz rolled over Hideki Matsui in last year’s All-Star balloting.

No, the landslide vote was a confirmation that The Man at the Wheel is bigger than Gloucester, bigger even than Massachusetts.

As the Gateway Arch in St. Louis opens America’s West, as the Sears Tower in Chicago defines the big shoulders of the Heartland and as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia recalls the Revolution, The Man at the Wheel looks far beyond his own city. He sums part of the American spirit, and so reaches across the state, the region, to become finally a symbol of and for the country.

The Man at the Wheel has gone national.

Leonard Craske’s sculpture, cast in 1925, started and remains a monument to Gloucester fishing and the men lost at sea. The pilot bends forward over the wheel of a schooner, in rain gear, staring into rough weather.

Like the Gateway Arch, the Sears Tower and the Liberty Bell, The Man at the Wheel perfectly sums up his city. It is Gloucester, capturing in one icon the courage and stamina of a community nearing its 400th birthday.

But just as Gloucester leads the nation east every morning, The Man at the Wheel has become the country’s pilot. America follows in his wake. Gloucester even led the way into recession, plunging into harsh downturn months before the rest of the country, reminding some of the noir tragedy that overtook Manuel in “Captains Courageous.” Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for that 1937 performance, but Spencer doesn’t live here any more.

This dynamic and hardworking city will continue to lead through heavy seas, fashioning the economies and hopes of a new day.

John J. Ronan

Gloucester Poet Laureate