Ruth Ziolkowski…the beloved matriarch of the family responsible for carving the Crazy Horse monument out of a Black Hills mountain near Custer, has died just a month shy of her 88th birthday.
She’s being eulogized by people not only in South Dakota but all over the world as an inspiration to millions; a living example to never forget your dreams. But, believe me, it hasn’t always been that way. More about that in a sec.
I’m not sure why, but 1953 must have been a pretty good year financially for my dad because it was the only year we bought a brand new car; a two tone green Mercury at a dealership in Estelline and I got to go along when he picked it up and drove it home. We also gave it a good breaking- in that following summer with a trip west that included a tour of the Black Hills.
I mention this because it was the first time I’d ever heard of the Crazy Horse Monument..or, more specifically, this crazy “Pollack” (sorry, but that’s what a lot of people called Korczak Ziolkowski) trying to carve a likeness of the Indian leader who killed Custer out of a mountain located right next to the town that bears Custer’s name.
Well, as best as a kid can remember, we had a fun time in the Hills on that vacation from Dinosaur Park in Rapid City to Mt. Rushmore to Evan’s Plunge in Hot Springs and while heading back on 385 we spotted a homemade sign pointing to Crazy Horse Carving and dad turned in. I don’t remember how far we drove on the gravel until we came to a turnaround and a small parking area and shelter with a view of “Thunderhead Mountain.” We were met by a rather plain but attractive young woman with long blonde hair. She was holding a bunch of pamphlets. I remember her distinctly because I had never seen a grown woman without make-up and wearing blue jeans before.
We all looked at this big empty rock of a mountain and listened to her answer my dad’s questions and explain (probably for the zillionth time) why her husband was doing this; something about dreaming big and leaving a legacy for Indians who had their heroes too. I remember seeing the familiar model of the sculpture on display which Korjzak had carved for the tourists to visualize the finished product and then dad asking the inevitable question, “When will it be done?” Her now famous non-committal reply was frustrating and, when dad tried to pin her down, I’ll never forget her saying “It could be fifty years or more” and all I could think about was how long a time that was to wait and I’d be an old man by then. I don’t recall if dad gave anything when she asked for a donation and I’m sure the brochure is long gone but you’ve got to hand it to that woman’s tenacity and dedication to her husband’s ambition.
Can you imagine all those years when the only progress on Crazy Horse people ever noticed was in the size of the Ziolkowski family..eventually growing to ten; five girls and five boys. Oh, there were the occasional explosions on the mountain but most of the activity seemed to be in building roads, museums and stuff for tourists at the monument’s base. All the while, Ruth Ziolkowski, the ever loyal disciple to her husband and his dream has faithfully and cheerfully fielded the same questions from doubters and skeptics and critics who claim it’s all a scam to bilk tourists. She calmly has asked us to be patient, use our imaginations; the image is there it just takes time. She was determined to follow the last wishes of Korczak who, on his death bed in 1982, said Crazy Horse must be finished but to work slowly to do it right. Sometimes, though, even the dreamers must face reality and so it was with Ruth Ziolkowski who knew that if people didn’t start seeing something besides piles of blasted rock on that mountain soon, they’d have to shut the whole operation down and prove the critics right. So she made the wise decision in 1987 to shift focus on the carving from the horses head to the Warrior’s face and before long we didn’t need to use our imagination any longer as Crazy Horse himself began to appear from deep within the stone.
I’m convinced that exposing Crazy Horse’s face helped save face for the entire Ziolkowski family. Everybody knew they worked incredibly hard but nobody, except for them, really could be sure that the glorious image imagined by Korczak, was really in there until we could all see for ourselves.
Since the dedication in 1998, donations to and interest in the monument have increased considerably but still nobody’s projecting a completion date. I, like Ruth, likely won’t live to see it but I now have no doubt it will get done eventually.
One of her last interviews was with Keloland News from her hospital bed last month in which she was still talking about daring to dream big.
“I think the memorial is proof that Korczak was right.” she said. ” He thoroughly believed and he taught all of us that nothing is impossible. You can do absolutely anything in this world you want to do if you’re willing to work hard enough and to pay the price.”
RIP Mrs. Z Pleasant Dreams.