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A place for Tennessee Williams in Forest Park

Francesca Williams and sculptor Don Wiegand stand before a shrouded mockup of the proposed statue of Tennessee Williams.
Sheila Rhodes

When Francesca Williams put on scuba gear for her first lesson on Saturday, Aug. 14, she was on the 37th day of an attempt to do 50 new things in 50 days to celebrate her 50th birthday on Aug. 28.

50 by 50

Since she kicked off her 50-things marathon on July 10, Francesca Williams had already tried shooting a hand gun, flying in a glider, getting ordained as a minister, writing 50 haikus in a day, attending a strip club, eating a fried Twinkie and spending the day at a nudist resort.

But the scuba diving lesson at Great American Diving Co. was the most difficult to date, as she explained to me during a conversation at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville, where Williams was asking 50 people for a hug on day 41. (Yes, I volunteered to be one of the 50 ... Francesca can be persuasive.)

"The scuba diving class was definitely a big wall to break through for me," she explained. "I'm not a good swimmer, I hate water up my nose, plus the mask and equipment just didn't feel comfortable. But I managed to get through it. And now I can say I've faced that challenge. I didn't think I could do the rock climbing a couple weeks ago either, but I just started up the wall and everything came together."

In terms of her new experiences, Williams made a point that the new experiences have reinvigorated her in many ways - although the pace of doing something new every day for 50 days has been very demanding.

"It's been very interesting," she states. "I loved spending time one day at a Buddhist monastery. It was a very spiritual and moving experience. Then, three days later, I'm shooting a gun for the first time at a target range - and really liking it! The hard part is that each new thing can take up from four to 12 hours a day. And that can be a exhausting. But there's a reason I'm doing this that goes beyond just the 50/50 concept."

For more information on Francesca Williams' 50 new things project, go to www.francescawms.com and click on "Projects."

For Williams, the 50 new things in 50 days is more than just something different to do to celebrate her 50th birthday. She is the daughter of St. Louis attorney Dakin Williams, whose brother was legendary playwright Tennessee Williams, who spent a good portion of his formative years in St. Louis. Francesca Williams used the 50 new things to publicize a new nonprofit foundation she has started, the Tennessee Williams Family Foundation For the Arts. And she's also used the 50 new things effort and the new Foundation as a way to kick-start a drive to erect a statue of Tennessee Williams - hopefully in Forest Park.

Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams wasn't born in St. Louis, but he lived here in the Central West End (where a bust of the playwright can be found) and University City with his family from the age of 7 through high school, then returned to briefly attend Washington University after studying at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Although his first acclaimed play, "The Glass Menagerie," takes place in St. Louis, he always regarded the city as provincial, because he never felt comfortable or accepted here, according to his niece.

"My uncle Tennessee died in 1983 when I was 23," recalls Williams. "I used to see him annually when he would come to visit or we would visit him. I remember him in his white suit and hat, always looking like a southern gentleman. I remember he used to call St. Louis "St. Pollution." The last time I saw him here was in 1981 at my mom's funeral. Then he passed away himself two years later.

"When he died, my dad, Dakin, brought him to St. Louis to be buried in Calvary Cemetery. I remember at the time that Monsignor Wilkerson, who did the eulogy at the funeral service, told my dad that there should be a statue of Tennessee somewhere in St. Louis. And my dad remembered that he and his sister Rose walked over to the Jewel Box all the time from their house. So that just seems like the right place."

Williams told me she had decided to wrap up her 50 days of attempting 50 new things with a birthday celebration at the St. Louis County home and studio of sculptor Don Wiegand on Aug. 28. An appropriate choice, because she had chosen Wiegand, who has his sculptures on display in the Vatican, Busch Stadium and other locations around the world, to create the sculpture of Williams that was to be funded by her new Foundation.

I was invited to stop by for the party, which would include the unveiling of a mockup of Wiegand's proposed bas-relief statue of Tennessee Williams as a concluding note to the evening of celebration.

Williams welcomed me on Wiegand's patio, and introduced me to the sculptor, who described how he had gotten to know Francesca and how the concept of a Tennessee Williams statue began to move from a vague idea toward reality.

"I was at Tennessee's funeral, and I remember the Monsignor telling my friend Dakin that there should be a statue of Tennessee in St. Louis - and that I should be the one to sculpt it," recalls Wiegand. "Then later, I met Francesca at Dakin's 88th birthday party in 2007. We reconnected earlier this year and ended up talking about the Tennessee Williams statue ideas, and both decided we needed to try and really make it happen. Especially since the 100th anniversary of Tennessee's birth is coming up on March 26, 2011."

Wiegand and Williams then took me into the studio for a quick look at the initial mockup of the Tennessee Williams statue. A red cloth covered the nearly eight-foot tall mockup, situated between bas-reliefs of Bob Hope and Winston Churchill that Wiegand had either recently finished (Hope) or was working to complete (Churchill).

"We decided to go with a bas-relief," explained Wiegand. "And we based it on a famous photograph of Tennessee looking out a window and smoking a cigarette. It's a photo that's a good starting point, because I think it really captures him and his creative power. And when it's finished, I'm hoping we can find an ideal setting such as the Jewel Box, that will serve as a sculpture that inspires people."

Wiegand and Williams lifted the red cloth to reveal the initial mockup, and the image did indeed seem to capture the essence of Williams' creativity and personality.

But the hard part will be fundraising, through the new Tennessee Williams family Foundation For the Arts and the sculptor's own Wiegand's Foundation Inc.

"To really do this full-size will take about a year-and-a-half," says Wiegand. "And it could cost up to $500,000."

"But with the 100th anniversary of my uncle's birth," says Williams, "now seems like the right time to make this happen. And I'm also hoping we can set up an annual celebration of the plays of Tennessee throughout the St. Louis area. And in a more general way, I'm hoping the Family Foundation - with a focus on this sculpture - can also inspire new generations to express themselves through the arts."

Williams paused for a moment, looked at the mockup of her legendary uncle, then paused and took a breath before speaking again.

"I've always been the quiet one on the family, she concludes. "So this whole experience - the 50 new things ... The Family Foundation ... the sculpture ... has been interesting for me. Somehow, I knew I would have a career later in life. It's a new challenge ... a new part of my life."

To see the press release about the proposed Tennessee Williams sculpture and the Tennessee Williams Family Foundation For the Arts, and find out more about how to contribute to the funding of the sculpture, click here.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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