William Van Orden, the sculptor known for his meticulous restorations of Venice High School’s statue of actress Myrna Loy after numerous assaults on it by vandals, has died at 67.
Van Orden, who completed his 12th restoration of the statue despite ill health and waning strength, died of cancer March 18 at a nursing home.
Over the years, Van Orden worked thousands of hours repairing the Loy statue and two other statues at the entrance of the campus that were the target of countless pranks and acts of vandalism.
“They call me the Don Quixote of Venice,” he said in a Times article last year. “They don’t realize that I take that as a compliment. Myrna is my windmill.”
Van Orden was honored in June by Venice High School students at a dedication ceremony for the newly restored statue, which is now enclosed in a protective iron cage. He was also awarded a proclamation from the city.
The Myrna Loy statue first came to Van Orden’s attention after vandals in 1978 used dynamite to blow off its head and arms. A year later, Van Orden drove by and saw the damaged statue and, grabbing a tool box, began making repairs.
“I took out my chisel and mallet and started hammering on it when the principal came out and asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ ” he told The Times. “I said, ‘I’m here to fix the statue.’ ”
The Venice artist began his most recent restoration about a year ago after vandals battered the heads of all three statues.
Van Orden again rushed in to do repairs, but this time, he said, he did not believe he would live to finish the job. Doctors had told the artist that his death was imminent.
“I decided not to abandon her,” he said at the time. “I had to return one more time. This is my life’s work, and after I finish this job I feel I can pass the job on to someone else.”
But Van Orden managed to complete the restoration of the 7-foot-tall statue of Loy, which is a depiction of the goddess Venus rising from the sea. It was sculpted in the 1920s by Harry Winebrenner, a nationally known sculptor who also taught art at Venice High School. He chose as his model a 16-year-old art student named Myrna Williams, who later gained fame on the screen as Myrna Loy.
Van Orden received an outpouring of support and national attention following news reports about his efforts to preserve the statue.
“He wanted so much to see it declared a historical landmark so it could be protected and preserved from future damage,” said Rodan Van Orden, the artist’s 19-year-old son.
Van Orden said his father never felt he received the recognition he deserved from his work on the statue. “You know he was a fine artist, a good painter.”
At Venice High School, officials and students were saddened by Van Orden’s death.
“He always had time to sit and talk with the students. He touched a lot of lives here,” said Sharon Gebhart, the school improvement coordinator.
Van Orden, who was born in New York City, is survived by Rodan; his mother, Emily Van Orden, 92; a sister, Jane Kowach, and three brothers.