Editor's note: On May 13, the city of Akron dedicated a 12-ft.-tall bronze statue of a rubber worker, along with a kiosk where people can hear stories about Akron's rubber workers and their descendants. The statue was inspired by the book "Wheels of Fortune: The Story of Rubber in Akron," written by Steve Love and David Giffels, then of the Akron Beacon Journal. The book, published in 1999, chronicled the rise of the rubber industry. The column below originally appeared on Mr. Love's blog, "Toward the End: Readings, Writings, Football," and was posted on Facebook.
Love: Who was the unknown rubber worker?
AKRON — Though perhaps a reach, when they unveiled the Rubber Worker Statue in downtown Akron recently, I kept thinking a word was missing.
I've thought this for the more than 20 years, since the University of Akron Press published Wheels of Fortune: The Story of Rubber in Akron and the photo that inspired the statue jumped off the cover at potential readers.
It should be the Unknown Rubber Worker Statue.
By implication it also might be called the Anonymous Rubber Worker Statue. Or even, the EveryRubberWorker Statue, more precise and specific than everyman but still symbolic of all of those who labored over more than a century in the factories of the great rubber companies that once made Akron The Rubber Capital of the World.
Since I first saw the photo in the newsroom of the Akron Beacon Journal's longtime fortress at 44 East Exchange Street, one question hung out there like a giant question mark that perhaps Zanesville artist Alan Cottrill could sculpt next. It would fit perfectly next to The Rubber Worker and perhaps create a hybrid art form of some sort.
Real industrial realism meets vague modern art. Without a word it would ask the question:
Who the heck was this guy?
He was young, strong enough to be wrangling an oversized tire during the building processes in vertically integrated rubber shops. His sleeves are rolled up. He wears a hat, as if he is on his way out. Boots send a like message that could be deceiving. An apron protects his clothes.
We know that he worked for Goodyear because Goodyear provided the photo that photo editor Susan Kirkman Zake found among thousands and recommended to editor Deb Van Tassel Warner.
In a brief question I posted to Facebook, I wondered aloud if all this would have happened had we chosen another photo. Ms. Van Tassel Warner responded that, essentially, there was no other photo, no second place. The verdict was swift and sure.
Still, I'm left with the feeling that I have had at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. Who were these brave souls who now lie here for so many who gave their lives for the rest of us.
Since World War I, an unknown soldier from each of our wars has been randomly selected to join the first Unknown. Likely, there will never be another.
Since World War I, unknown combatants have been exhumed from American cemeteries in foreign lands and, in identical coffins, one coffin has been selected by a decorated fellow serviceman to lie in honor for all the honorable ones.
According to several sources, advances using DNA have allowed scientists to identify the last of the four Unknowns in the Tomb of the Unknowns. The Vietnam War Unknown was selected during a May 17, 1984, ceremony at Pearl Harbor but by May 14, 1998, his remains were exhumed and tested and the Unknown was found to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie. His plane had been shot down in 1972 near An Loc, Vietnam.
Blassie's family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, and because this could occur again the Vietnam War crypt cover was replaced and inscribed: "Honoring and Keeping Faith with America's Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975."
The Rubber Worker should be different from the Unknown Soldiers, yet is not entirely. He did not die in a rubber shop, though the work, especially in the early years, could be nearly as dangerous as it was dirty. We, obviously, have a photo of the young man from which Alan Cottrill crafted a bronze statue in his likeness. Nevertheless his identity is as much a mystery to us as the Unknown Soldiers were prior to DNA "fingerprints."
Our Rubber Worker was not always a statue. He was known. Someone loved him, cared about what his days (or nights) were like at Goodyear, wanted him to do well and prosper. He literally stands for every rubber worker, and so it might be just as well that we don't know who he is. But the search is on again.
The only information with the photo that Ms. Zake has posted on Facebook was: "Hand wrapping a tire" and the year, 1917.
"When Susan could track down more info, she did," Ms. Van Tassel Warner informed me, "but apparently there was no trail with this one."
Additionally, Roger Mezger is trying to track down a Goodyear employee directory from 1917. And the Akron newspaper's ultimate historical sleuth, Mark J. Price, is on the case. This is a first-class cold case squad. Will it help?
Here's the thing: Transference can be tricky. (In psychoanalysis, it is an unconscious shift of emotions and desires to another person, especially patient to analyst.) Wires can get crossed. Things can go haywire.
I have a hunch — and that is all it is — that it would be better if we knew who the Unknown Rubber Worker was and therefore would not saddle his bronze self with all the extraneous baggage from personal relationships.
With his name in our minds, we would know for a fact that we don't know him. We probably don't even know someone who might have known him. So it isn't personal — yet it is.
He stands for all us, for a time gone by, for an industry that was a golden boulevard to the middle class, even for high school graduates, for an Akron changed.
Yet we also know that our Unknown Rubber Worker, even if we have never been a part of the industry that made Akron what it was, lives on in us and the Akron we know. It would not be what it is, what it can become, without what he and his stock left Akron.
Our Unknown Rubber Worker built more than tires. He and those who stood with him building what once was an industrial powerhouse fashioned lives as resilient as the rubber.
In Akron, rubber is not just another polymer. It is THE polymer.
For the most part, they didn't hit the road the way rubber ultimately did. They fought the good fight and they kept fighting even when it turned out that some of the companies — not Goodyear — to which they gave their lives didn't care if they lived or died. They are why Akron lived.
They are the reason Akron was what it was and is what it is. They are not unknowns.
Steve Love is an award-winning writer who spent more than 40 years as a journalist, working at newspapers coast to coast. Mr. Love has written six books, including his most recent: "Football, Fast Friends, and Small Towns: A Memoir Straight from a Broken Oklahoma Heart." He won a share of two Pulitzer Prizes awarded to the Akron Beacon Journal staff. One of those Pulitzers was for the ABJ's coverage of an attempted takeover of Goodyear.
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