Waukegan museum, statue to honor Ray Bradbury

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Long before Douglas Spalding bottled summer by gathering dandelions in Green Town, Illinois, in “Dandelion Wine,” Ray Bradbury roamed the streets of Waukegan, Illinois, falling in love with every aspect of the small Midwestern town.

He loved everything about it, from the people to the lakefront to the Greek-style stone building on the corner of North Sheridan Road and Washington Street housing the Carnegie Library. Bradbury loved Waukegan so much, in fact, that he fictionalized the town, transforming it into Green Town – the setting for several of his novels.

Despite Bradbury’s obvious love for his hometown, the town has been slow to return his affections. In the town that Bradbury immortalized within the pages of his books, there are no statues, no memorials honoring the world-renowned author who was really just a small town boy at heart.

“When he touches people, he touches them very, very deeply,” Sandra Petroshius said. “People constantly talk about his hungry imagination. …He took ordinary people, the ordinary things on the street here – the movie theater, the cigar store, all these things – and he got into the imagination of youth and what it meant to be human: what it meant to grow up, to die, to connect with your son.”

Petroshius is chairwoman of the Ray Bradbury Museum, a program hosted by the Greater Waukegan Development Coalition determined to right that wrong and establish a “Bradbury brand” for the town by opening the Ray Bradbury Museum.

According to a news release by RBM, the project will be an “experience museum with cutting-edge exhibits to engage visitors of all ages in the brilliant ideas and imagination that Bradbury expressed in his books, screenplays, movies, TV series and poems.”

Bradbury touched and inspired so many people, Petroshius said, from renowned authors such as Neil Gaiman and R.L. Stine to filmmakers and directors to the everyday bibliophile. For that reason alone, she said, she can’t quite believe that no one has attempted such a project.

The museum will be set in a 3,500- square-foot space provided by the Greater Waukegan Development Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and improving the greater Waukegan area.

“When you have someone who’s got a good idea in the not-for-profit sector – a museum – that wants to come on the Genesee Street, that fits right in our [mission] of helping to develop and improve the greater Waukegan area,” said Shai Lothan, GWDC director of real estate development and board member. “So we love the idea of them taking this as a home that will set them off. Hopefully in five or 10 years from now, they can take over a different facility, renovate the original Carnegie library where [Ray Bradbury] grew up. But they need to get started.”

RBM ultimately hopes to extend its project to Bradbury’s beloved Carnegie Library – the impressive stone structure that was replaced by the new Waukegan Public Library more than 50 years ago and has remained vacant ever since. While the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected from demolition or alterations, it is slowly falling into disrepair while organizations grapple with the daunting task of revitalizing it.

For now, RBM is focused on its museum, which it hopes to open in 2020 to coincide with Bradbury’s centennial birthday.

Across town, the Ray Bradbury Statue Committee is raising funds for its dedication to the prolific writer and Waukegan native: a statue “commemorating the life and work of Ray Bradbury,” which the committee plans to erect in front of the new Waukegan Public Library.

Richard Lee is the library’s executive director. He also serves as the committee’s chair. He said the committee has reached about half of its $125,000 fundraising goal.

“I’m hoping when this is up and kids walk by there to come to the library, they’re gonna go, ‘Wow, this guy was from here? And he was born in 1920? Wow, I could be a writer, too,” Lee said.

More than 40 artists across the nation submitted their portfolios to the committee for consideration and after narrowing it down to three, the committee commissioned Zachary Oxman for the project.

His proposed statue is a 12-foot stainless steel rocket ship piloted by Bradbury, who is wielding a book in his free hand. While the other two finalists submitted more traditional sculptures for the project, Lee said the committee ultimately selected Oxman for his creative approach.

“Out here we wanted something a little more futuristic and we thought [the kids] would be inspired by it,” he said.

The committee hopes to unveil the statue next summer.

When Bradbury passed away in 2012, the author bequeathed a number of his personal belongings to the Waukegan library, many of which are now on display throughout the main floor of the branch. One glass display case houses the last typewriter Bradbury worked on before he died. Another showcases several different copies of “Fahrenheit 451” and memorabilia pertaining to the novel.

While the library and statue committee are two separate entities, Amanda Civitello, marketing and communications manager for Waukegan Public Library, said the library intends to take this opportunity to generate community interest in new and existing programs within the branch.

“We were so excited that the [Ray Bradbury Statue] committee chose us to be the location for it because Ray had such a long history with the library,” she said. “[He had] a real connection with what it gave him in terms of fundamental education, love for learning, that kind of thing. We were really excited.”

Powell Park, Waukegan’s first public park, was renamed to bear Bradbury’s name in the 1990s and the town hosts the annual Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine Fine Arts Festival. However, these two undertakings – the museum and the statue – will be the town’s first permanent dedications honoring Waukegan’s favorite son.

According to Petroshius, projects such as RBM present three draws for Waukegan.

“One of them is people who just love Ray Bradbury,” she said. “They’re all over the world and they just come here and they want to see something about Ray Bradbury. Another thing is historic preservation. They hope to see this building [the Carnegie Library], which is so unusual when you get inside, preserved and there’s a connection with Ray Bradbury. And the third thing is economic development. People want to see Waukegan thrive and I keep saying this is an asset. Ray Bradbury is Waukegan’s asset and it needs to be revealed. Like a diamond in the rough it needs to just be uncovered so it can glow.”