Urbana resident Don Hatcher is living proof that finding one’s true passion in life can come when it’s least expected. In his case, the discovery came after he decided to retire in 2012 as a news videographer for WDTN-TV in Dayton, at which point he began to dabble in the art of sculpting.
“When I retired, they gave me a gift certificate to Hobby Lobby,” Hatcher said. “I bought clay.”
Little did his co-workers know at the time, but the clay Hatcher purchased helped form the foundation for what he hopes will be his crowning achievement – larger-than-life bronze statues conceived by him in his Urbana home for permanent placement in the planned Evolution of Flight Park just north of Dayton.
“I think everybody wants to leave a legacy behind. I hope this is mine,” the Springfield native said. “I’ve got seven grandkids, and it would be nice for them to be able to come and visit this place someday and say, ‘Grandpa did that.’ What a thrill that would be!”
Within the next year or so, Hatcher hopes to begin work on 7-foot-tall statues of arguably the state’s most famous brothers – Orville and Wilbur Wright.
Once complete, the plan is for the aviation pioneers to be bronzed and permanently placed in seated positions on a flight of stairs (Orville holding a model of the Wright Flyer) at the entrance to the Evolution of Flight Park, which will surround the planned Triumph of Flight monument – a stainless steel replica of the 1905 Wright Flyer III. With a wingspan of 144 feet, the iconic airplane – considered to be the world’s first practical aircraft – will soar 270 feet above the intersection of interstates 70 and 75 just north of Dayton.
Curt Nelson, vice president of public information for the Wright Image Group (the nonprofit organization behind the Triumph of Flight monument), said the project has an estimated construction cost approaching $16 million, and the group is in the midst of a capital campaign in which nearly $2 million has been raised to date.
Joining the team
Having previously worked for Walter Hoy, chairman of the Wright Image Group, Hatcher said he knew about the group’s desire to build such a structure in honor of Ohio’s rich aviation history. When he discovered the plans for the statues surrounding the monument, he reached out to his former boss.
“I knew they were doing astronauts, which is what I like to do, so it was right in my wheelhouse,” he said. “I had a meeting with them and told them what I could do to help. At that time, they were actually looking for someone to do it because everything was just in the planning stages.”
After the meeting, Hatcher took the group’s ideas and went to work in his Urbana home.
“Basically, I spent my summer working with clay, sculpting miniature models to show them,” Hatcher said.
The summer of clay in the Hatcher household proved to be well worth it as this past August, the group decided to bring Hatcher aboard.
Plenty of sculpting work ahead
In all, the Wright Image Group has chosen Hatcher to sculpt five larger-than-life individuals synonymous with aviation. Along with Orville and Wilbur Wright, Hatcher will immortalize in bronze two other famous Ohioans in Neil Armstrong and John Glenn.
“It was a working process to get what they (Wright Image Group) wanted,” he said. “You don’t want the sculptures to get lost in a crowd. The way they explained it to me is you want to look up to your heroes, so they all are about 7 feet tall, which is kind of normal for a statue.”
The Armstrong statue will pay homage to his historic first steps on the moon in 1969 and will feature “the moon man” in his astronaut suit taking what he referred to as “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
For the John Glenn statue, Hatcher will sculpt the former astronaut and U.S. senator exiting the Mercury “Friendship 7” spacecraft after piloting the country’s first manned orbital mission in 1962.
The fifth and final figure to be constructed by Hatcher for the park will be Icarus, a mythological aviator, who will be placed on a wall with one of his wings jetting out over the walkway.
“Each one of them will probably take about a month to do, maybe a little longer on some because of the detail,” he said. “I like to put a lot of detail into my sculptures.”
Hatcher will also be sculpting an exact replica of a Korona V camera, which was the model used to capture the iconic 1903 photograph of the Wright Brothers’ transportation-changing invention in action.
“On one of the walls, there is going to be a large picture of the Wright Brothers’ first flight,” Hatcher said. “Out in front of the wall, this camera will be sitting there on a tripod.”
If Hatcher has it his way, the Evolution of Flight Park will one day also feature a statue of the Champaign County man who gave light to the aviation industry – Warren G. Grimes. In fact, Hatcher has sculpted a model of the man known as the “father of aircraft lighting.”
“It could be that Grimes will be put down there on display some day,” he said. “Eventually, they are going to add others (to the park) as the years go on, from what I understand.”
Past experiences set the stage for once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
Based on how Hatcher’s involvement with the project came about, it appears destiny might have played a role.
Having dabbled in artwork since high school, Hatcher spent his pre-retirement years juggling back and forth two careers – one involving art and design work, the other as a TV videographer.
From an art-related standpoint, Hatcher’s held jobs ranging from designing T-shirt artwork to tackling more sophisticated technical drawings.
It wasn’t until a little over a decade ago that Hatcher, while working as a pattern and mold maker for a company out of Fairborn called Fox Lite, got his feet wet in the sculpting world.
“Every now and then a job would come in where I would have to sculpt something,” he said.
The result of two of those jobs – the mold for a Coca-Cola “take a penny, leave a penny” tray and the mold for a child-sized left foot used to display sandals at shoe stores – currently sit on display in Hatcher’s office as a reminder of his past creations.
“That’s kind of where my interest in sculpting started,” he said.
In coming full circle, Hatcher added, the owner of Fox Lite just happens to be Hoy, the man behind the Triumph of Flight monument.
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-508-2304 or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.