While much has changed for the school at the corner of North Highland Avenue and East Liberty Boulevard in the past 100 years — including its name — the 7-foot bronze Memorial to Soldiers sculpture remained a constant. 

Still, the memorial honoring the alumni of Peabody High School — now known as Obama Academy — who fought and died in World War I had deteriorated significantly over the past century, as a green patina spread on the bronze work, a piece of a figure went missing, and the flagpole at its center was removed. 

But at 11 a.m. Thursday, exactly 100 years to the hour that it was dedicated in 1924 and after more than a year of fundraising and repair work, the restored sculpture was unveiled and a new flag was raised at a ceremony attended by more than 100 students, alumni, veterans and others.

“It meant the world to me because I saw it being returned to its original intent,” said James Hill, restoration campaign chair and a longtime volunteer at the school. “This is what Frank Vittor wanted and hoped for, that the American flag would fly over this memorial and over these people, these alumni and veterans and those who served, forever. So seeing it brought back to how it was meant to be was incredible.” 

The sculpture features seven figures, each depicting a different stage in the life of a soldier, atop a granite pedestal. It also includes the names of the 543 Peabody alumni who served and 17 who died in WWI.

Peabody students raised the $10,000 needed for the sculpture by selling Liberty Bonds in the early 1920s, and the school commissioned Vittor, the famed artist also known in Pittsburgh for his statues of Honus Wagner and Christopher Columbus.

For some at the ceremony, the sculpture stood as a reminder of the role that Pittsburghers, specifically Peabody and Obama alumni, have played in maintaining American freedom. 

Dignitaries applaud as the refurbished Peabody Memorial to Soldiers is unveiled. (Jason Cohn/Pittsburgh Public Schools)

“When I think about the students who went to this school that served in the military, 543 people went to this school and served in [WWI]. Out of that, 17 lost their lives,” Mayor Ed Gainey said. “We played a major impact in making sure that our democracy was safe. I’m proud to have went to Peabody High. I’m proud to speak for Obama Academy.”

Even 100 years after it was first dedicated, the sculpture continues to inspire students, according to Isaiah Trumbull, Obama Academy’s senior class co-president. 

Trumbull said that while researching names listed on the memorial, he learned of Malcolm Cowley, a chronicler of the “Lost Generation,” who, after graduating from Peabody, attended Harvard but left early to drive ambulances in the Great War. After reading Cowley’s book “Exile’s Return,” Trumbull said he understood the calling that drew the author into service in the conflict.   

“I understood the responsibility he felt to dedicate himself to the good of others. I understood his responsibility to his country,” Trumbull said. “I am following in Cowley’s footsteps attending Harvard and commissioning in the Army. This statue is only a small representation of the legacy of Cowley and other Peabody soldiers. Its existence, however, has inspired my service.” 

Mariah Gaines, Obama senior class co-president, challenged her classmates to remember what the sculpture means as they move forward with their lives.   

“The restoration of this statue is not just about preserving a piece of our history. It is about reigniting a sense of pride and responsibility in all of us. We believe that this project will inspire today’s students to be selfless and to utilize their education to better the society that those immortalized in this statue fought and died to protect,” Gaines said.

“To the students in attendance,” she continued, “let us make every effort to honor their legacy by striving to be exemplary in our own lives, committing ourselves to the ideals that this statue symbolizes: education, sacrifice and dedication to service.”

Foundations and individual donors helped raise approximately $190,000 for the project, which also includes the refurbishing of the outdoor classroom where the sculpture is located. A concrete staircase will also be built to connect the space to East Liberty Boulevard. Hill said he expects the city to approve permits needed to build the staircase within a matter of weeks. 

Restoration of the memorial was completed by conservator Michael Belman of Fine Art Conservation Services LLC. 

Before the sculpture was unveiled, the Obama band and choir performed the Peabody High School alma mater and, for the first time in public, Obama Academy’s alma mater, “Eagle Pride,” composed by Aisha Sharif-Lucas, the school’s music director.

Bob Creo, a Peabody alumnus who started raising funds to restore the sculpture in 2019 before being thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic, called the ceremony “heartwarming.”  

Like many Peabody alumni, Creo felt that his school was lost when it changed its name to Obama Academy in 2009. He said Thursday’s ceremony changed his mind.

“I think what is nice is bridging [the gap] between the old Peabody and Obama and trying to create a network,” Creo said. “The Peabody people, we feel kind of like, ‘We’re done, our school’s over, we’re defunct and now it’s something else.’ But we shouldn’t feel that way. That’s what I learned today. We need to feel connected to the same people.” 

Mayor Ed Gainey, right, shakes hands with Peabody alumnus Bob Creo as restoration campaign chair James Hill watches Thursday before the refurbished Memorial to Soldiers sculpture was unveiled outside Obama Academy in East Liberty. (Jason Cohn/Pittsburgh Public Schools)

Andrew writes about education and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at agoldstein@unionprogress.com.

Andrew Goldstein

Andrew writes about education and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at agoldstein@unionprogress.com.