Fannie Mae Duncan immortalized
By Robin Intemann
For retired teacher Kathleen “Kay” Esmiol everything is a teaching moment, and one in particular is how the downtown statue of Fannie Mae Duncan came to exist.
After writing a play about Duncan, students in Esmiol’s Eagleview Middle School Young Writers’ Club were inspired by the African American entrepreneur, activist and philanthropist. “The kids said she ought to have a statue,” Esmiol recalled. That was 1993.
In October, the 6-foot, one-inch, 320-pound bronze sculpture was dedicated in front of the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts at 190 S. Cascade Ave., near where Duncan’s jazz club, the Cotton Club, had operated for 28 years. The building was razed for urban renewal in 1975.
The middle schoolers are credited with the statue idea, but Esmiol, who planted the seed by introducing them to Duncan, ultimately saw it through to fruition. Esmiol taught English and advised extracurricular activities in Air Academy School District 20 for 25 years; she hasn’t slowed down. She’s quick to mention being 81 years old, and her knowledge of Duncan, and others connected to Colorado Springs history, is matched only by her determination to gets things done – and done quickly.
Duncan died in 2005 but not before the two women became friends. The former teacher wrote a book about Duncan entitled “Everybody Welcome” based on the businesswoman’s credo. “Her door was open to everyone,” Esmiol said. “She and I refused to believe you can’t solve problems.” For both, this meant bringing people together through the arts.
Once her book was published in 2013, Esmiol was often asked to speak to various groups about Duncan’s life. “I began giving lectures, I’m still giving talks,” Esmiol said. “I wanted to let everyone know of her contributions.” And, the statue idea grew brighter.
“At first I thought we’d get an organization behind it (the statue),” Esmiol said. “Then I reached a point where I just said ‘I’m doing this!’”
The Fannie Mae Duncan Statue Committee, comprised of four other former educators and two advisors, was established in 2017. Although Esmiol’s Eagleview students raised $2,000 in seed money, the committee covered the early operating costs to launch the project. Committee members include Judy Casey, Sharyn Markus, Pam Marsh, Cindy Walsh, Claudean Bragg-Brooks and Lou Mellini.
The committee began researching sculptors, toured a foundry in Loveland and attended the Loveland Sculpture in the Park exhibition. “I had researched all the sculptors beforehand,” Esmiol said. “There were seven I was pretty sure could do it. When we got to Lori (Kiplinger Pandy) I knew we had found the right one.”
That proved to be among the easier items to cross off the to-do list. Esmiol knew the most appropriate place for the piece was in front of the Pikes Peak Center. After giving a presentation to the El Paso County Board of Commissioners she was disappointed immediate approval wasn’t granted.
“I knew we would lose the artist, lose the slot in the foundry and lose too much time if a decision wasn’t made immediately,” she explained. Although she’d been told it wasn’t possible for a decision to be made regarding the location, she refused to settle for a delay.
“I had established myself as indomitable,” she said. “I knew it could be done. We did get the land the day we asked for it.”
Kiplinger Pandy wanted the statue placed in the middle of the sidewalk with the open pathway of the Pikes Peak Center in the background to reflect Duncan’s “Everybody Welcome” ideology. That, too, met with some resistance, until Esmiol pointed out “There’s a man on a horse in the middle of Nevada Avenue.”
Thanks to underwriting from the Nor’wood Foundation, grants and gifts from numerous foundations, organizations and individuals, along with the efforts of Esmiol, the committee and civic leaders, the statue is in place. More than 700 persons attended the dedication, including 40 members of Duncan’s family who came from around the world. Several students involved in writing the play all those years ago were also present.
Esmiol’s goal throughout the entire process, first from teaching students about Duncan and later giving lectures about her life, is to ensure no one forgets Duncan’s presence in Colorado Springs. The statue safeguards against that.