From Elizabeth Jensen’s fifth-grade eyes, the statue — covered by a piece of cloth — looked huge. But she found she wasn’t alone in her awe. When the cover was finally removed, she and the rest of the crowd let out a “big gasp.”
It was 1990, and Jensen, who at the time attended Ridgecrest Elementary School in Cottonwood Heights, was part of a group of students who had traveled to Washington, D.C., for the unveiling of the statue of television technology inventor Philo T. Farnsworth.
Students from the school had lobbied the Legislature throughout the late ’80s to approve Farnsworth’s placement in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol, where two native figures of historical significance represent each state. Utah’s first statue was that of Mormon pioneer leader Brigham Young.
But 30 years later, Farnsworth’s statue may not be as permanent a fixture in D.C. as he once seemed, thanks to a proposal before lawmakers in January’s legislative session. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, has picked up the plan — originally proposed by former Rep. Adam Gardiner — to unseat Farnsworth in favor of Martha Hughes Cannon, the first woman state senator in the nation.
“All of the hard work, all of the money we raised and then the fact that he just wants to take the statue and put it somewhere else is, you know … we don’t want to think that one guy can ruin the dreams of all these kids,” Jensen says now.
Former Ridgecrest principal Bruce Barnson was the mastermind behind the lobbying effort that secured Farnsworth’s place in Statuary Hall. At the time, the Legislature selected the inventor to represent the state in 1987, Utah was one of just six states that had only one statute in D.C.
When Treva Barnson, Bruce Barnson’s wife, first heard in August about the proposal to replace Farnsworth’s statue, she felt “sad” and “unhappy.”
“We just grabbed our heads and thought, ‘Oh, no, what are those politicians thinking of?’” she recalled. “’They haven’t done any of their homework. They know nothing about what they’re doing.’”
During his tenure as principal, Bruce Barnson worked with students each year on a project to take to the Legislature. Among his successful projects was the naming of the honeybee as Utah’s official insect.
The Farnsworth project, which Barnson said was his most challenging, came to him one day as he was driving home from work, listening to the radio.
“[Sen.] Orrin Hatch said, ‘Isn’t it a shame that Utah only has one statue in Statuary Hall?’” Treva recounted. “And Bruce just had an ‘aha’ moment — that’s going to be our next project.”
His students conducted research to determine which historical figures would best represent Utah in the nation’s capital. They studied 21 prominent Utahns and surveyed 400 residents across the state before settling on Farnsworth. After that, they began the work of getting the bill through the Legislature.
“It was such a part of the school culture,” Jensen remembered. “Philo T. Farnsworth was such a common name that you’d hear in the hallway because everybody was on the same side. Everyone was trying to honor this great inventor.”
The proposal passed in the Senate but died in a House committee in 1986. The state approved the statue the next year but didn’t fund the $250,000 estimated cost, so Bruce Barnson and his students worked next to raise the money needed before they could travel to D.C. to finally see the statue in place.
Because Barnson has lost much of his ability to speak, his wife has taken up the call to urge lawmakers to “leave [Farnsworth’s statue] alone.”
“They’re just grasping at things they can do to put it on the resume,” she said. “To make a check mark of ‘Look what I did — I changed the statue in the Capitol building.’ Well, it doesn’t … it should never be changed. It just should never be changed. That man is too important to do anything like that.”
Farnsworth was born and raised in Beaver, Utah, and attended Brigham Young University. Though he created a number of inventions, and his corporation at one time held more than 150 patents, he is best known for the technology that made television possible.
Treva said she’s heard from a few former students who are against the proposal, but Weiler hasn’t heard much opposition from fellow legislators.
“Most of those that I’ve talked to have been very supportive,” he said. He reiterated that he’s not trying to disrespect Farnsworth’s legacy but added that the inventor has had his “opportunity to shine for almost three decades.”
Now, he wants Cannon — a Mormon pioneer, polygamous wife and suffragette who earned a medical degree from the University of Michigan and defeated her own husband when she won her state Senate seat in 1896 — to have “her opportunity to shine, as well.”
Bruce Barnson was chairman of the committee that helped place an 8-foot-tall bronze statute of Cannon in the Utah Capitol in 1996, but the Barnsons don’t believe she deserves to unseat Farnsworth.
“She was the first woman senator,” Treva said. “Yeah, she’s important. But did she contribute what Philo T. Farnsworth did? I don’t really think so.”
For Jensen, the Farnsworth statue is a way not only to honor the inventor’s legacy but also the students who helped put him there.
“In the public education system, we do the math, we do the reading, we do the normal stuff,” she said. “But the thing that Bruce helped us do was he helped us realize that when we work together in a group, we’re bigger than ourselves. We can really make a change. We can see a lasting change. And we were able to.”