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Bellingham given bronze statue of community leader J.J. Donovan

John Joseph Donovan has returned to Fairhaven, where he settled in the late 1880s and became a leading businessman and community leader.

At a ceremony Sunday, Sept. 14, a bronze statue of Donovan seated on a bronze bench was unveiled at 11th Street and Harris Avenue, by Rocket Donuts.

“I’m sure he walked that sidewalk many times, although it was wooden at the time,” said Brian Griffin, who worked with Fairhaven Village Green Committee and with Whatcom Community Foundation to win support for the statue and raise $55,000 for its creation.

A civil engineer, “J.J.” Donovan came to Whatcom County in 1888 and became involved in numerous business ventures, including railroads, the Blue Canyon coal mine and Bloedel-Donovan Lumber Mills. A serious-minded teetotaler, Donovan also was a major supporter of St. Joseph hospital and of Assumption Catholic Church. His death in 1937 warranted a story in The New York Times.

Griffin is writing a biography of Donovan after having secured a trove of documents, letters and artifacts from Donovan family members. Griffin also curated a Whatcom Museum exhibit, “Treasures from the Trunk,” about Donovan.

Much of the money for the sculpture came from the sale of engraved pavers and stone markers at the Village Green in Fairhaven. About $4,000 of the money raised will be set aside for future public art, Griffin said.

The Donovan statue, which was given to the city’s art collection, was sculpted by Robert McDermott of Blaine, who also created the Dirty Dan Harris bench statue at the Village Green.

For Dirty Dan, McDermott used his artist’s imagination to sculpt Harris’ face because there are no known close portraits of Harris. For Donovan, however, McDermott had access to photographs and writings to help him create the bronze figure. For example, Donovan, a prolific diary writer, tracked changes in his height and weight over time.

The figure seated on the bronze bench represents Donovan when he was new to Fairhaven. He was 30 years old at the time, stood 5 feet 9 inches and weighed 176 pounds.

“This guy had just spent six years hiking over the mountains and designing railroads in Montana,” Griffin said. “He was in shape.”

Donovan, for whom Donovan Avenue was named, is portrayed wearing a four-button suit, a shirt with an Edwardian collar, and high-top laced shoes. He is hatless, with his hair parted on one side and bald spots in front and back.

“He’s thinning,” McDermott said. “That’s a kind way to put it.”

The bench, a bronze version of ones with contoured seats and backs that used to be located in downtown Bellingham, is nearly 6 feet long, with room for two people to sit on one side of Donovan and for one person to sit on the other side.

To have Donovan sit comfortably on the curved bench, McDermott built a two-foot-long replica of the bench and created his model of Donovan to fit.

“It was fairly complicated,” he said. “I didn’t have a bench to put him on, so I had to make a bench.”

Donovan is sitting with his legs crossed. His left hand holds a pad of paper and his right hand holds a fountain pen. He has just written a letter, a real letter, to his bride Clara, who is temporarily in Tacoma. The letter includes Donovan’s sketch of the curve of Bellingham Bay, with marks showing the location of the four bayside towns; Whatcom, Sehome, Bellingham and Fairhaven.

The real letter was replicated on a plate of bronze and sealed, so it will remain legible even as the statue darkens with age.

“You’ll be able to sit there and read the letter,” Griffin said.

The bench, with Donovan, weighs about 850 pounds and is secured to the sidewalk.

“It will outlast all of us,” McDermott said.