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‘We Made It, Dad’ : A Memory Met--Face to Face

Times Staff Writer

Jack (Palooka) Payne--prize fighter, merchant seaman, gambler, stonecutter and father--always wanted to be here the day his daughter climbed the mountain.

But the mountain that Payne loved would frustrate his dream. Years of breathing the fine rock dust he hammered from it ignited chronic diseases--silicosis and emphysema--that would choke his lungs and snuff out his life.

As the 74-year-old Payne lay dying in a Modesto hospital in 1984, Jackie Maggio told her father she would follow the path he had walked hundreds of times a half century before, when he helped carve out the giant stone faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Payne claimed credit for carving out Washington’s nostrils and Lincoln’s left eye.

“I told him, ‘Daddy, if you don’t get to go, I’ll go.’ And he squeezed my hand real tight. He knew he wasn’t going to make it, but he knew I was,” she said.

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On Wednesday, Maggio, 41, of Reseda, clambered up Mt. Rushmore to make good on her promise. As she leaned on an outcropping at the midway point, winded from the rugged climb through a rock-laden pine forest, her gaze fixed on the very top of Washington’s head hundreds of feet above. Maggio said she was going to make it up there, “one way or another.”

She carried a dozen pink roses in memory of her father and two white roses in honor of her uncle, Jimmy (Call Boy) Payne, who also worked on the monument.

Climbing the steep path with her were the memorial’s chief ranger, Leo Zwetzig, and a close friend, Steve Hill.

“My legs don’t want to climb any more,” Maggio said as Hill pulled her over a small crevice about halfway to the top.

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But the ascent continued on a steep metal ladder, past rusting equipment of the crews that from 1927 to 1941 chiseled out a mountain destined to awe millions as a shrine of democracy.

Maggio scrambled up the final ledge just as the wind blustered dangerously. Zwetzig, his hat grabbed by the wind and deposited on the rocks 400 feet below, yelled at the woman to keep low.

But the stonecutter’s daughter was looking elsewhere, her eyes moving over the majestic Black Hills of western South Dakota.

“I remember him talking about standing on top of the mountain and feeling like he could see the rest of his life before him, like it was all there for the taking,” Maggio said.

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Roses on Summit

She placed the roses on the summit and put a rock over the stems to prevent the flowers from blowing away.

“It’s everything my dad said it would be,” declared a grinning Maggio, clutching a single pink rose she would keep for herself. “It feels like I’ve done what I was supposed to do.

“I was saying things to myself like, ‘We made it Dad,’ ” she said with a sigh.

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Wednesday’s tribute was the first time Mt. Rushmore National Memorial officials have allowed any ceremony on the summit to honor a former worker. The difficult route to the top is closed to the public. Maggio was given special permission because her father worked so long on the project, from 1929 to 1938.

About 360 people worked on Mt. Rushmore during the 14 years it took to complete the memorial after President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the project. But few labored on the mountain longer than Payne.

The monument was conceived by sculptor Gutzon Borglum who, until his death in 1941, directed the crews as they blasted away rock with dynamite and cut the stone to precise dimensions transferred from a scale model at the base of the mountain.

Full of Ideas

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“He was a wonderful, eccentric guy--all full of ideas,” Jack Payne said of Borglum in a 1982 interview. “He’d fire you in a minute if you talked back to him, but he’d always take you back. He took me back many times.”

A typical crew consisted of 30 men--skilled drillers, powder men, hoist operators and blacksmiths. Most, like Payne, were hard-drinking, poker-playing miners, who before the Mt. Rushmore job had scoured tunnels under the Black Hills for gold.

Payne started as a laborer at 55 cents an hour, then worked as a winch man and a driller, and finally, a carver, making $1.25 an hour before he quit over a wage dispute.

Suspended over the sheer face of the mountain, he and other drillers gave general shape to the faces with their jackhammers. A small air hammer was used for “bumping,” smoothing out the four 60-foot-high faces to their finished appearance.

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In the 1982 interview, Payne asserted that the time he spent flat on his back drilling straight up into Washington’s nostrils produced the doses of rock dust that ultimately killed him.

Hazard of Job

At the time, silicosis from breathing the minute, glassy dust was common to all hard-rock miners. No records were kept on workers who suffered from the disease, but several of them died from it because precautions to contain the dust were insufficient, according to Mt. Rushmore’s chief historian, James Popovich.

Payne’s mask was uncomfortable to wear, Maggio says, and her father spent one winter inhaling the dust under a canvas tarp slung across the rock faces to protect carvers from the subzero temperatures, cold enough to freeze tools to a cutter’s hands.

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But Payne, who later traveled the world as a merchant sailor, never considered the mountain to be his undoing, his daughter says. On the contrary, scratching out a monument intended to last tens of thousands of years, carousing with friends who were drilling history out of a rock face, winning prizefights over the likes of “Hammering Huntley” and “Pinkie Lewis"--those were the best days of his life, she said.

Even as the silicosis defeated him, there there was no bitterness or anger, Maggio said.

“It would never occur to him to blame the mountain,” she said. “Silicosis and all, I don’t think he would have taken back a minute of it.”


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