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The Old Lion: Akeley & Roosevelt

Winning the Taxidermist of the Year Award at the National Taxidermists Association convention has always been a top honor. Last month at the NTA convention in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, this honor was kicked up into the stratosphere by the creation of a special trophy created by sculptor Doug Eck of North Dakota. As this beautiful new trophy was introduced to the members at the NTA Awards banquet, it was clear to see that the spirit and meaning of this sculpture ran deeper than anyone could have anticipated.

The Theodore Roosevelt Lion, inspired by the work of Carl E. Akeley, sculpted by Doug Eck. This was introduced in 2015 as the trophy for the NTA Taxidermist of the Year.

The story behind the inspiration for this award was a moving one. As I listened, I became aware for the first time of Carl Akeley’s profound grief at losing his good friend, Theordore Roosevelt, and how creating the Old Lion sculpture became part of his mourning process. I also never imagined that an artist like Akeley would have considered this project a failure, and would have abandoned it. But even though he has achieved hero status to all taxidermists, Akeley was just a man, and all artists experience frustration and disappointments from time to time.

Taxidermy historian John Janelli of New Jersey is the past NTA President, and one of the foremost experts on Akeley’s life and work. John wrote the eloquent story, related below, of the inspiration behind the inception of this award. Board member Tim Thacker of Illinois read the speech aloud to the members as the award was introduced. I felt that this story needed a much wider audience than the banquet attendees alone, so with John Janelli’s permission, I am including it here.

NTA Old Lion Award by John Janelli

On the sixth day of a cold and dreary January morning back in 1919, Carl Akeley finally began to write a letter to his very dear friend, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. The purpose of his correspondence was to invite the Colonel to pen the introduction to Akeley’s long awaited book; “In Brightest Africa”. Roosevelt used to affectionately hound and often respectfully pestered Akeley into submission with regard to putting his life, passions and work into text book form, especially his personal African adventures. Who could appreciate greatly authored books as much as our beloved 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt? Akeley enjoyed the luxury of first writing his own letters in script with an old ink pen on unlined paper and then handing the letters over to his secretary for tweaking, typing and mailing. Oh how he looked forward to this particular letter he was then crafting!

No sooner as he had written the first two words of his salutation; Dear Colonel – did his candlestick telephone begin to ring. On the other end was Akeley’s friend George H. Sherwood, the executive secretary of the American Museum of Natural History. “Ake, I have very bad news for you. Colonel Roosevelt died this morning.” Imagine the shock, the loss and the emptiness in Akeley’s very soul at hearing something as devastating and at that very moment in time.

Upon returning from the funeral a few days later he became increasingly withdrawn for to say he was simply depressed would be a terrible understatement. In his own words; “For me the bottom dropped out of everything. I had to find expression and I naturally found it in modeling. I set to work on a lion. I meant to make it symbolic of Theodore Roosevelt, of his strength, courage, fearlessness – of his kingly qualities in an old fashioned sense. And this modeling afforded me great comfort and relief. Taxidermy, groups and bronzes were all forgotten. Never really knowing what to do with it came the vague idea of casting one bronze for Mrs. Roosevelt and then destroy both model and mold.”

The only surviving photo of The Old Lion sculpture in clay by Carl E. Akeley. The sculpture did not survive.

Not very long after Akeley completed his sculpture, he was paid a visit to his museum studio by Archie Roosevelt, one of the Colonel’s very own sons. Upon viewing the lion for the first time, Archie actually embraced the pedestal upon which the oil clay lion rested and exclaimed; “This is Father! How could you know! None of us want to see statues of Father. They can’t make Father. Of course you do not realize it but amongst ourselves we boys always called him The Old Lion. And when he died, I cabled the others in France – The Old Lion is dead.”

The unfortunate side of this epic story was that maybe Akeley allowed too many people to view the Old Lion thus increasing criticism and disdain for the sheer grandeur of the Lion that some of those skeptics belittled it as. Even his masterful protégé James L. Clark labeled the piece as not being one of Akeley’s finest sculptures. Later on Akeley stated, more like swearing, of the Old Lion that; “No other sculptor could possibly have the same deep desire as I to perpetuate the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt and to do him all honor.”

With an architect named James Brite, came the idea of making the lion out of granite with a 38 foot long base with a height of 18 feet with various inscriptions of TR’s quotes along with a dedication by Herman Hagedorn of the Roosevelt Memorial Association. The total projected cost was four million, seven hundred thirty two thousand and eight hundred dollars ($4,732,800.00) and it would come to stand at Rock Creek Park, DC. Unwarranted scrutiny was passed upon Akeley as being a great taxidermist but certainly not the man to produce a sculpted lion that matched the veracity of Theodore Roosevelt; nor was Mrs. Roosevelt the one to pass judgment on the sculpture from the stand point of its proper qualities for such symbolism. By 1925, the year just prior to Akeley’s own death, the entire project was scrapped and ended.

That is to say until the summer of 2013 when NTA past president John Janelli gave a lecture at the Medora Roosevelt Foundation where the story of the Old Lion was not only related but was illustrated with the same heartfelt passion in which could be interpreted directly from the pages of Akeley’s insatiable respect and affection for his very dear friend, Theodore Roosevelt. Like the catalyst that kicks off the bondo, Akeley and Roosevelt were among the most dynamic conservationists that may have ever graced the history of our industry with.

Some people have considered The Old Lion sculpture of Carl Akeley to be nothing but one of the few if any, failures of his life’s work. For it is has never surfaced again since Akeley decided, more likely led to believe, that it was perhaps unworthy after all.

Just as the biblical stone that the builders have rejected became the corner stone of an even greater structure, the National Taxidermist Association has elected to implement this truly masterful conception of Theodore Roosevelt’s earthly essence in every sense of his leadership and virtues as an American icon. The sculpture by Mr. Doug Eck of which we proudly unveil today for the very first time is not a copy of Akeley’s work. Rather it is a mirrored image of the same love and respect for a friend that anyone can surely relate to, that which was forged under an acacia tree on the most historical safari of all time – The Roosevelt East African Expedition of 1909 – 1910.

You must keep in mind that at that time, Theodore Roosevelt had already made plans and booked passage to Alaska for a very lengthy big game hunt there first, never really entertaining thoughts of a safari to Africa and for so long at all. It was after listening to a lecture on African exploration given by Akeley right at the White House of all places, did Roosevelt completely changed his plans. It was then that Roosevelt canceled the Alaskan trip and decided on a safari instead. So excited was he that he actually arrived in Mombasa 6 months ahead of Carl Akeley’s expedition. Back then, there were no GPS, cell or SAT phones with which to communicate in the bush or anywhere else for that matter. They relied only on human foot power, that is to say they sent runners in every direction for weeks at a time looking for each other’s party once they were wired the information that Akeley finally arrived in Africa. Imagine seeing the expression on Akeley’s face when a native runner told him that a huge caravan with an enormous American flag was seen leading and confirmed to be that of the Roosevelt expedition?!

So dedicated is the NTA to both these incredible men, that we have crowned the NTA Taxidermist of the Year Award with this rendition of The Old Lion.

Doug Eck’s original clay sculpture was inspired by the work of Carl Akeley. Tim Thacker of Illinois expertly molded the sculpture and created the bronze cold-cast trophy.

To Mr. Eck, we may be certain, that if Carl Akeley’s sculpture of the Roosevelt Lion was a failure, his sculpture of the Roosevelt Lion is our success! For it is our hope that every taxidermist who may ever win this coveted title will also embrace the memory of one of the greatest American presidents, statesman and conservationists – Theodore Roosevelt. His love for taxidermy and those who practiced the art were no secret in any part of his short lived life. In fact his personally mounted collections of taxidermy are still kept on display in several museums nationwide to this very day. Shudder to think that even the kitchen table at the Whitehouse served as a temporary work station for taxidermist President Roosevelt and on more than one occasion at that. Behind that dedicated sentiment of The Old Lion sculpture of course, is the very spirit of Carl Akeley himself. He certainly had a way of expressing that which he felt most connected with in life, through clay, bone and skin that which we have come to love as taxidermy.

Let it be remembered that this award is not merely for high caliber taxidermy, as the Colonel would say. It shall also be a reminder to those who aspire to win it, that our industry is not defined by giving glory to a taxidermist for utilizing the resources of our sustainable wildlife populations in such a way. Rather it is about giving heartfelt respect and reverence to all wildlife so that the heart beat of conservation never stops. Today, we immortalize the African lion in repose so that the memory of Carl Akeley and Theodore Roosevelt may never die.

On a blank page at the very beginning of Carl Akeley’s book, “In Brightest Africa” read the same words that will forever stand in all future NTA taxidermy competitions to come after us:


Sculptor Doug Eck receives a commemorative plaque of appreciation from Fred Vanderburgh of New York for his outstanding work in creating the award.

After Tim had finished reading John’s speech, Fred Vanderburgh took the stage. Fred, Tim and John had been instrumental in assembling all of the parts together to bring this idea to fruition. After Fred presented their ideas to Doug Eck, a highly respected and sought-after wildlife sculptor, he produced the lion sculpture pro-bono, at no charge to the NTA. Tim Thacker also donated his valuable time to create the complex rubber molds and pour the final cold-cast bronze with a patina and weight to make it indistinguishable from a foundry project. Fred thanked all of the people involved and acknowledged their contributions. Then the banquet attendees all got a chance to meet Doug Eck and hear him speak about this project.

The following is Doug’s story, in his own words:

The Roosevelt Lion Sculpture by Doug Eck

You never know where work is going to take you in life. When you reflect back on events that lead us to where we are now, it always makes you wonder what God has planned for you. We’ve all had those head scratching moments when you wonder how an opportunity just fell in your lap. This is one of those events that just came about by happenstance, and I am happy it did.

My name is Doug Eck. For 31 years I have been blessed to make a living in the wildlife art industry. My interest in Taxidermy began in 1984 and I started my own business in 1990, although I prefer working as an independent contractor for several studios. Twenty years ago I began a very successful career sculpting fine art wildlife bronze. Since then many different art, and outdoor based companies have used my talents to create masters for their production.

Being a typical artist, I enjoy a variety of work and love new challenges so I can keep the “creative juices” flowing. So when my longtime friend, Brian Kadrmas, owner of Dakota Taxidermy in Bismarck, North Dakota, asked me if I wanted to work in his studio I jumped at the chance. What an opportunity to learn! I know of no other studio in the world that has so many National and World Champions that work under one roof.

Doug Eck’s lifesize mule deer won many top awards at the North Dakota Taxidermy Assoication convention.

Last winter I was encouraged by the Dakota Taxidermy staff to enter a life-size mule deer in the North Dakota State competition. It was a tremendous specimen and I was pretty proud of the outcome, so I did. It was at the competition, that I met fellow taxidermist, whitetail expert and judge, Fred Vanderburg.
In the next few days Fred and I got to know each other and he told me of his involvement in the NTA. He explained in detail how he, Tim Thacker, and a handful of other passionate volunteers who wanted to create a new award for the NTA. This new award was to be inspired by a lion sculpture that Carl E. Ackley was working on, but never completed. I admire people who volunteer their time to help others, and the Ackley tie in was all it took; I told Fred I would wave my normal fee and take on the project.

Realizing the deadline for production was brief, we all got to work immediately. Fred and Tim provided me with the backstory, desired dimensions, and some reference material within a few days and I began pushing clay. I was still working full time a Dakota Taxidermy, so I could only work a few hours every evening. After two weeks I was able to get the sculpture pretty close, and brought it to Dakota Taxidermy Studio for critique.

I received some great input from, three incredible talents, Bill Neuman, Daniel Meng, and Travis DeVillars. I was very fortunate that Travis was at Dakota visiting just before the World Taxidermy Competition. Two days later, after applying my new found knowledge, the sculpture was completed, crated up and shipped off to Tim for molding and production.

I enjoyed this project very much, and hope this award exceeds the expectations of the NTA and its members. It is truly an honor to be asked by your peers to assist such a worthy cause. Thank you for the opportunity.

Doug Eck

After Doug’s speech, the room was ripe with anticipation to see who would be the recipient of this beautiful award. When Rebecca Wilcher or Arkansas was announced as the 2015 Taxidermist of the Year, a roar of approval swept through the crowd and she received a standing ovation. Rebecca won with her beautiful tahr shoulder mount which can be seen here.

Fred Vanderburgh, presents the award for the 2015 Taxidermist of the Year Rebecca Wilcher while sculptor Doug Eck helps support the heavy trophy. Master of Ceremonies Russell Knight of Alaska looks on from the podium.

To see more information on the 2015 NTA Convention, go here: The 2015 NTA Convention

To see the winners from the 2015 NTA Competition, go here: 2015 NTA Major Award Winners

A few more views of the beautiful Theodore Roosevelt Lion, sculpted by Doug Eck and inspired by the work of Carl E. Akeley.

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