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Dethroning California's King

SculptureArts and CultureGovernmentWars and InterventionsRonald Reagan

AH, THOMAS. WE HARDLY KNEW YE. Thomas Starr King, that is. Once one of California's most beloved heroes; honored in bronze as one of the state's two representatives in the 100-statue collection at the U.S. Capitol. For 75 years, schoolchildren, foreign dignitaries and visitors from California all paid homage to the state's duo of major historical figures: Father Junipero Serra, the founder of California's missions, and Thomas Starr King.

Wait a minute. Thomas Starr who?

That was probably the question members of the Legislature were asking themselves in the closing hours of their session last week, when they sent the governor a bill to unceremoniously oust King and replace him with Ronald Reagan. King, a Unitarian minister, may have been an intellectual star in the mid-19th century, but today he's not exactly a household name. It's a safe bet that most Californians who know his name at all first learned it while visiting the U.S. Capitol, then promptly exclaimed, "Huh?"

King traveled from town to town in California's early days exhorting citizens to support the Union cause in the Civil War. Before King, it was by no means clear that California was going to go that way. There was strong sentiment for the Confederacy in Southern California, and the state toyed with splitting in two or seceding. King's stump speeches helped keep the 10-year-old state in the republic.

But that was a long time ago. California always has been more interested in the future than the past. Besides, King did most of his preaching in New England. He arrived here just before the Civil War started, and he died before it was over. Now he's mostly known as the name of a middle school in Silver Lake.

So was King the most obscure figure represented in the Capitol's collection? Not even close. Maryland has John Hanson, who some argue was the first president. (No kidding. Look it up.) Pennsylvania passed up Benjamin Franklin but picked John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg. Missouri has Francis Preston Blair Jr., who did for his state much what King did for ours.

But no more obscurity for California. In Reagan, the state will honor the president, governor and entertainer who has not just a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but now a sculpture at the Capitol. Reagan won't be the first to have both. Will Rogers (Oklahoma) got his statue in 1939, long before his star. And although Philo T. Farnsworth (Utah) already has his statue, he is still waiting for his star.

He richly deserves it. Look it up.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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