Iconic statue leaves Royal Oak for warmer quarters

By: Victoria Mitchell | Royal Oak Review | Published January 9, 2017

 Seward Johnson Atelier employee Eli Slifer attaches a harness to the “Embracing Peace” statue as part of moving it to Key West, Florida. The statue had been on display in Royal Oak since June.

Seward Johnson Atelier employee Eli Slifer attaches a harness to the “Embracing Peace” statue as part of moving it to Key West, Florida. The statue had been on display in Royal Oak since June.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

ROYAL OAK — Vietnam Veteran Curtis Burton rushed to Memorial Park the morning of Jan. 5 to have his photograph taken with the “Embracing Peace” statue before it departed for warmer quarters.

“I just had to come see it,” he said. “It was on my to-do list for the last six months, but every time I came by here, I was on the other side of the street.”

Burton said he even attended the Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise and saw it from the road, but he wanted a photo up close before it left.

The veteran was one of a handful of people stopping for a final photo with Seward Johnson’s “Embracing Peace” statue before it was lifted from Memorial Park, at the northeast corner of Woodward Avenue and 13 Mile Road, for relocation to Key West, Florida.

The 15,000-pound statue of a sailor kissing a nurse on V-J Day was strapped and hoisted from its base and delivered by crane to an awaiting flatbed truck beginning at 10 a.m. before making the southern drive to its next destination.

The towering iconic statue, symbolizing the end of World War II and made famous in Life magazine by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, arrived on a flatbed truck from artist Seward Johnson’s New Jersey studio to its temporary resting place in Royal Oak in June 2016.

Bringing the statue to the city was a collaborative effort between the Michigan World War II Legacy Memorial, the city of Royal Oak and Seward Johnson Atelier, a not-for-profit entity that encourages the placement and sharing of public art. The statue’s arrival was funded locally through a donation made by Jack and Annette Aronson, founders of the Ferndale-based Garden Fresh Gourmet.

At the time, members of the Michigan World War II Legacy Memorial Committee hoped the statue’s arrival would bring awareness and funding to the group and its goal of raising the $3 million to erect a monument in Royal Oak’s Memorial Park officially recognizing the state’s contributions during WWII.

“What an opportunity it’s been for exposure, fundraising, awareness, everything,” said Debi Hollis, president of the Michigan WWII Legacy Memorial.

The statue also brought many volunteers to the foundation, which Hollis said were welcomed for their help and support.

“You just can’t put a price tag on certain kinds of things,” she said. “And that kind of community support and belief in our project is so overwhelming.”  

Hollis said the committee is also grateful to Seward Johnson Atelier for its partnership and belief in the committee’s project. 

Russell Levine, vice president of the Michigan WWII Legacy Memorial, explained that in addition to coverage of the actual statue, Johnson’s work set the backdrop for many events hosted by the Michigan World War II Legacy Memorial Committee — such as the 71st anniversary of V-J Day and a candlelight ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor — and to Royal Oak events such as the 22nd annual Woodward Dream Cruise, the 46th annual Royal Oak Outdoor Art Fair and Paws in the Park.

“And you couldn’t drive by — especially on a summer night — and not see a half a dozen people here,” Levine said. “It’s hard to miss a 25-foot statue. And it’s made a lot of people happy, so we’re really thrilled about it and sorry to see it go, but we know what we’re going to build here is going to be even more spectacular.”

For those looking for other pieces of nostalgia created by Johnson, the community is invited to view “Can Do!” It is a life-sized rendition of Rosie the Riveter placed outside the Royal Oak Farmers Market and visible from East 11 Mile Road.

The World War II Legacy Memorial has future plans to highlight that piece of work.

To learn more about the Michigan WWII Legacy Memorial, visit www.michiganww2memorial.org.