LE MARS, Iowa | Though he'd been working with metal for nearly 50 years, artist Terry Utesch had never attempted anything as large-scale as the nearly 1,400-pound eagle sculpture, doing sentry-duty inside Westmar Memorial Park.
"We began fundraising (for the project) around two and a half years ago and it took me, off and on, a year and three quarters to complete (the eagle)," he said of the steel sculpture that has a 14-foot wingspan and measures around 5 feet tall from talon to wingtip. "This is, by far, the most ambitious sculpture I've ever attempted."
However, Utesch knew the importance of the eagle. It was meant to pay tribute to the students and faculty of Westmar University as well as the college's founder, Jacob Wernli.
A Swiss immigrant who moved to America in the mid-1850s, Wernli founded several schools in Wisconsin before moving to Le Mars, where he became Plymouth County Superintendent of Schools, according to great-granddaughter Barbara Wernli Collins.
"Not only did Jacob found the schools in Le Mars, he founded a school that would teach teachers," she said of the Northwestern Normal School and Business College, which eventually became the Le Mars Normal School, Western Union College, Westmar College and, eventually, Westmar University, before the liberal arts school permanently closed in 1997.
"When the school closed, the city bought the buildings, tearing many of them down," Wernli Collins explained.
Among the buildings that were demolished in the 20 years since Westmar's closure was Wernli Hall, a college's longtime dormitory and the sole namesake for its founder.
That is, until now.
At 4 p.m. June 10, the eagle sculpture and a monument established in the memory of Jacob Wernli will be dedicated.
According to Wernli Collins' husband, Steve Collins, the idea for both the eagle and monument was the brainchild of Le Mars businessman Al Maser as well as members of the Westmar University Alumni and Friends Association.
"More than 90 percent of the $66,000 raised came from individual donations," Collins noted. "That should tell you how much people still love Westmar."
This includes Wernli Collins, a 1973 Westmar business graduate, and Collins, who took a few Westmar courses before finishing his education at Iowa State University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Utesch, on the other hand, doesn't have much of a Westmar background.
"I remember attending a few sporting events on campus when I was enrolled at Wayne State College," he said. "Mostly I became involved with the eagle project through my employment at Gus Pech Manufacturing Co."
A manufacturer of drilling equipment, Gus Pech is managed by Collins' brothers Cris and Gregg. In addition to supplying much of the steel, the Le Mars-based manufacturer provided the ample work space that Utesch needed for his oversize sculpture.
"Let me tell you, you can't sculpt a 1,400-pound eagle in the garage at your house," Utesch said. "You need plenty of space and Gus Pech gave that to me."
Luckily, Utesch never thought to count the number of feathers he fabricated for the eagle. Apparently, that was Collins' job.
"For some reason, Steve was obsessed with feathers," Utesch said with a smile.
"I think my final tally was that there was more than 4,900 individual feathers," Collins said decisively. "And no, I don't want to do a recount."
Inspecting Utesch's just-completed sculpture, Wernli Collins can't help but be a bit overwhelmed.
"Terry's eagle isn't meant to replace 'Westy,' which was Westmar's blue-and-white eagle mascot," she said. "'Westy' will always represent Westmar."
Instead, the sculpture will simply be one more to remember the college's 110-year history.
"I love the way Terry used shiny stainless steel for the eagle's neck and tail," Wernli Collins said. "I'm also happy that the eagle's wings will rust over time, turning a beautiful shade of orange."
Taking in the sculpture on a hot June afternoon, Wernli Collins is certain her Jacob Wernli would love Utesch's sculpture.
She also thinks her great-grandfather would also be pleased at the affection many still have toward Westmar nearly 20 years after its closing.
"Jacob devoted his entire life to education," Wernli Collins said. "He'd be pleased to know that Westmar is still held in such high esteem."