For the everlasting love of Edison and community. R.I.P “Edisonman”
American inventor Thomas Edison (1847 – 1931) conducting an experiment in his laboratory, circa 1910. (Photo by FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Eight years ago, a retired educator from a rural village in northeast Ohio arrived at the Ohio Statehouse on cloud nine. I found Don Gfell standing next to an antique Edison phonograph with a custom-made wooden horn he likely crafted himself. He was beaming. That’s all. Unbridled joy.
I’d seen that look of exhilaration many times before whenever my friend gushed about Thomas Alva Edison, his hometown’s singular claim to fame. But this time was different for the old science teacher and local school superintendent who so embodied Milan, Ohio’s love affair with the brilliant inventor born there 176 years ago.
The Columbus event on May 20, 2015, was a pinnacle moment for Gfell. He had come to the state capital building to witness the grand unveiling of a larger-than-life statue of Edison — destined for prominence at the U.S. Capitol — and to captivate anyone within earshot about the genius of one of the most famous and prolific inventors of all time.
Don would get almost giddy when giving hands-on demonstrations of Edison inventions from phonographs to motion pictures. In the Statehouse rotunda an audience of state politicians, assembled dignitaries, and Milan grade schoolers strained to watch as he screened a Kinetoscope, circa 1900, of Edison working at his laboratory.
The motion picture machine was one of his prized possessions in his everything-Edison antique collection. In retirement he poured his passion into a small antique shop for Edison lovers who, if they were lucky enough, might get an impromptu lesson on Milan’s legendary son from his preeminent fan. Don was an exuberant teacher, the kind you remember from school whose fervent obsession with a subject never waned.
Ever since a fourth-grade field trip to the Edison Birthplace Museum in Milan, young Don was hopelessly smitten with the extraordinary life and global legacy of the innovative genius born in his backyard. The crush lasted a lifetime. It began with a tour through the modest brick house where Nancy Edison gave birth to her last child on Feb. 11, 1847 that still sits where it was built by Edison’s father.
Don grew up in a town that embraced its unique historical part in the phenomenal Edison story with pride and a sense of purpose. Milan is Edison. The two are inextricably one. Don fell in love with both. It was his Milan family from all walks of life that he regularly counted on to rally support for Edison as the statewide selection to represent Ohio, along with former President James Garfield, in the Capitol’s famed Statuary Hall.
But it was largely Don’s dogged perseverance to put Edison on a national pedestal and “share him with the entire world” that made a longshot bid from a tiny enclave in Erie County — few had ever heard of — succeed over other efforts to elevate equally notable Ohioans. No doubt the famously tenacious Edison would have admired Don’s resolve. It was an exhausting odyssey that spanned years with endless challenges, setbacks, and delays, but he persisted.
Don and his tightly-knit Edison community made it happen. When the bronze likeness of the great inventor holding an incandescent lightbulb aloft was finally put on display in Ohio’s capital Don appeared transfigured by pure happiness. For once, he was speechless.
His abiding devotion to the groundbreaking visionary from humble Milan beginnings had gone farther than he dreamed possible. Mr. Edison was going to Washington. He would be enshrined in a pantheon of prominent Americans visited daily by thousands of tourists.
The statue’s trek to the Capitol went through Milan, of course. Don made sure of it. Even helped guide the 900-pound statue into the town library so everybody could get a good look at it before it was formally installed in the Capitol.
On the bus ride from Milan to the dedication ceremony in D.C., Don was like an excited kid on the way to Disneyland. He was standing, walking down the aisle, chatting with friends, reminiscing and recounting the generosity of the Edison sculptor (Zanesville native Alan Cottril) until his dear wife Bobbie told him to sit down already.
Don couldn’t help himself. His eternal hero belonged to the nation now. It was the highlight of his life. He sat in the large, two story, semi-circular chamber in the Capitol and watched the fabric covering the Edison statue drop. He listened as political luminaries, including the Senate Majority Leader and House Speaker, extolled Edison’s enduring influence and inspiration.
He gave a hands-on demonstration of an Edison recording, always teaching, and talked to anyone within earshot about the remarkable ingenuity of the man being honored. But mostly, he just beamed. Before Don Gfell’s death at 81 on Jan. 21, he would celebrate the unveilings of two more Edison statues as parting gifts to the village he loved and that loved him back.
A close replica of the U.S. Capitol statue was given to Milan by the Zanesville artist who sculpted the original in admiration of its impressive small-town spirit. Another Edison sculpture created by Cottril sits on a bench outside the inventor’s birthplace. Lasting testaments of hometown greatness made possible by a great educator who personified a passionate heart.
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