It’s a bit ironic that the “champion of democracy” resembles those statues of Lenin that used to mark town squares across the old Soviet Union. Visitors to Oolitic, Indiana are greeted by one such heroic bare-chested figure, fists clenched and cape flying.
The ten-foot boxer who guards the city’s Main Street is a limestone representation of Joe Palooka, a comic strip character created in 1928 by Ham Fisher. Over time, as the column became widely syndicated, Palooka evolved from a teenager who put bullies in their place to a boxing champion who enlisted in the Army during World War 2.
In 1948, Indiana’s limestone industry commemorated its centennial with a sculpture of the popular patriot. Veteran limestone carvers Harry Easton and George “Red” Hitchcock got the commission.
The latter, apparently, was none too pleased with the choice of subject. “He wanted to do a real person,” his daughter recalled.
A longtime Bedford resident, Hitchcock had worked on limestone projects regionally and across the country, including serving as the foreman of carving on the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. during its construction in the 1930s.
The Joe Palooka monument was dedicated at a ceremony attended by 4500, including Palooka’s creator Ham Fisher, who referenced the sculpture in his strip.
First installed in Indiana Limestone’s Dickinson Park, between Bedford and Oolitic, the ten-ton sculpture endured a series of transfers after persistent vandalism.
The Kiwanis Club funded the sculpture’s restoration—repairing Joe’s nose and an ear, and filling bullet holes—and moved the prizefighter to Oolitic in 1984, the same year Ham Fisher’s comic strip was retired. A plaque at the sculpture’s base calls it “a cornerstone of freedom.”
Jessica Gall Myrick, “Carved in Time” and Jackie Sheckler Finch, “The Ballad of Joe Palooka” in Homes and Lifestyles of South-Central Indiana, December 2010, Vol 7, No. 2, pp. 51-57.