Lincoln statue unveiling on Feb. 16 kicks off MSU’s two-day 125th birthday celebration

Abraham Lincoln has been an inspiration for artist Jim Dolan his entire life, and he hopes to share that positive influence with generations of Montana State University students in the best way he knows how – through his art.

Dolan’s gift of an 8-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture of Abraham Lincoln to his alma mater will be unveiled at 2 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16, which is the first day of the university’s 125th anniversary celebration, the Bobcat Birthday Bash. The statue, located on the north side of the Strand Union Building outside the Leigh Lounge windows, is the first piece of art to be installed on MSU’s Centennial Mall.

“If you walk by Lincoln every day for four or five years while you are at MSU, it cannot help to make a positive difference in your life,” said Dolan, who has created many well-known local pieces of art, including the elk at First Interstate Bank on West Main Street, the geese at the airport and Jeannette Rankin in downtown Bozeman.

The date of the Lincoln statue unveiling is not a coincidence. Dolan donated the sculpture to MSU two years ago with the university’s 125th anniversary in mind. President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862 creating the country’s land-grant colleges, of which MSU is one. Dolan pointed out that Lincoln also signed two other pieces of legislation in 1862 pivotal to his own personal history and perhaps the history of many Montanans: the Pacific Railway Act and the Homestead Act, which granted 160 acres of land in the West to settlers willing to live and work on the land for five years.

“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for those three pieces of legislation,” Dolan said. He said that his grandparents came to Sheridan, Wyoming, first on the train, and then up north to nearby Birney, Montana, where they homesteaded. “And I attended MSU, a land-grant institution. I think there are probably a lot of people in Montana who have stories like mine.”

Dolan said he’d heard MSU President Waded Cruzado speak eloquently about the Morrill Act and the impact of land-grant institutions on American culture, making education available to the sons and daughters of the working families of the nation. So, when he called her proposing donation of the statue to the university, they both thought the statue’s installation during MSU’s 125th anniversary would be fitting. In the meantime, Dolan kept the statue at his studio north of Bozeman.

Cruzado said that the Lincoln statue’s placement on MSU’s Centennial Mall is a stirring reminder of Lincoln’s signature on the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act on July 2, 1862 and, as he once wrote, “Upon the subject of education… I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.”

“We thank Jim Dolan for his generosity and his inspirational gift of this beautiful piece of art that reminds us of our land-grant legacy,” Cruzado said. “The statue will be a reminder to current and future generations of Bobcats that Montana State University was established thanks to President Lincoln’s signature on the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862, which resulted in the creation of one public university in each state and territory of the Union for the purpose of educating the sons and daughters of the working families of America. This is our commitment: that people of the state of Montana benefit from their land-grant university every day.”

Dolan’s Lincoln statue is 8 feet tall and sits on a 5-foot-tall stand, making the installation 13 feet tall. Dolan said he crafted the sculpture out of stainless steel so that the light would reflect brightly off the statue. In his right hand, Lincoln holds his famous top hat. In his left he holds a sheaf of papers. Dolan said the papers were inspired by both Lincoln’s speeches and the legislation he signed.

The Lincoln statue is the fourth piece of art that Dolan has donated to the university he graduated from in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture education and in 1971 with a master’s degree in agriculture. Other Dolan pieces at MSU include a statue of Beethoven west of Howard Hall, home to the MSU School of Music. A modern interpretation of the Sioux holy man Black Elk looks out at the future home of the MSU Native American Student Center on the east end of campus. And a life-sized sculpture of Walt Whitman, also one of Dolan’s personal heroes, is installed in the courtyard of Wilson Hall.

Dolan said the proximity of the Lincoln and Whitman sculptures makes sense to him, historically and personally. Whitman lived in Washington, D.C., for a time and wrote that he watched Lincoln come and go from the White House during the Civil War. Lincoln’s death inspired two of Whitman’s most famous poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!”

“If students are inspired by the Walt Whitman statue to look up who he was and then maybe read ‘Leaves of Grass,’ then I’ve done my job,” Dolan said.

A time capsule designed and created by MSU students also will be presented during the unveiling ceremony. Bobcat Birthday Bash organizers said memorabilia from each of the colleges and major academic units will be collected throughout MSU’s 125th year. At the end of the year, the memorabilia will be sealed then stored in a climate controlled archive in the MSU Library.

The public is also invited to attend a reception in the Leigh Lounge following the unveiling. Food will be served, including a huge MSU birthday cake.

More information about MSU Bobcat Birthday Bash events on Feb. 16 and 17, which will include fireworks, a Ferris wheel and many other activities, can be found at: