As a child, Don Wehrli walked through Central Park every day on his way to school.
He gained an affinity for the park that stuck with him his entire life. As both a citizen and city councilman, Wehrli championed the area as public property, making sure any infringement on the original 3.8 acres remained in the hands of Naperville citizens.
Since Wehrli’s death in 2015, his family has led the charge to bring a piece of art to the park in his honor – a sculpture of a laughing Abraham Lincoln.
“When he passed, one of the things he mentioned was he’d love to have a statue of Lincoln where children could rub Lincoln’s nose like in Springfield,” said Don Wehrli’s daughter, Mary Lou Wehrli.
And while the connection between Naperville and Lincoln may seem stretched, some suggest he may have been associated with Naperville’s founder.
“Joe Naper and Abe Lincoln were both in State Legislature at the same time,” said Naperville Century Walk Chairman W. Brand Bobosky. “Abe wanted to move the capital from Vandalia to Springfield. Joe Naper wanted to create DuPage County out of Cook County. Though they were of different mindsets on politics, kind of, they both wound up voting for each other’s proposition.”
That history between Lincoln and Naper is what pushed Don Wehrli to call for a portrayal of Lincoln to be added as the 50th piece of Naperville’s Century Walk.
And while most of the hundreds of Lincoln statues depict the 16th president in his later years – bearded and burdened with a nation’s troubles – Naperville’s sculpture will be different.
“’Laughing Lincoln’ portrays him in 1839 when our county got carved out of Cook,” Mary Lou Wehrli said. “He’s 30-years-old, he’s clean-shaven. He’s strong and sinewy, making fences and chopping wood and working hard – he was very poor. But he always had that good sense of humor.”
The sculpture will be located near the northeast corner of Central Park, in between the Blackhawk Memorial and the playground. Not far from the location of the former DuPage County Courthouse Lincoln helped make happen.
The sculpture is expected to be unveiled on December 2nd, just in time for Illinois’ Bicentennial celebration the next day.
Viewers will see under Laughing Lincoln’s left hand is a piece of paper that simply reads “deed”, representing the rights of property and possession.
A subtle tribute to Don Wehrli, the man who made sure Central Park stayed the property of the public.
Naperville News 17’s Casey Krajewski reports.
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