By David Colker, Los Angeles Times
It was sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski who took on the enormous task of carving a mountain in South Dakota to create a sculpture so mammoth it would dwarf the presidents on nearby Mount Rushmore.
But it was his wife, Ruth, who made the pragmatic financial and public relations decisions that were key to keeping the project — a depiction of Native American warrior Crazy Horse — on track, especially after her husband died in 1982.
“If you don’t have faith,” she said in a 2007 interview at the site of the far-from-completed sculpture, “if you don’t have any imagination, if you don’t have a dream — what are you doing here?”
Ruth Ziolkowski, 87, died May 21 at a hospice care facility in Rapid City, S.D. The cause was cancer, said Mike Morgan, a spokesman for the Crazy Horse Memorial project.
The ongoing operation now has 60 employees year-round, swelling to about 200 in summer when about a million ticket-buying tourists come to the more than 550-foot-tall site. The visitors are a chief source of funding for the project, which, in accord with Korczak Ziolkowski’s instructions, does not accept any government funding.
But Ruth Ziolkowski (pronounced jewel-CUFF-ski) varied from a pivotal aspect of his plan after he died, and her decision went a long way toward attracting tourists.
He had been concentrating on a massive section of the work to depict the horse that Crazy Horse was to be shown riding.
But the strategic blasting and carving was taking so long, it was likely to be years or even decades before much of the horse would be discernible.
She shifted focus to the far smaller section atop the mountain that was to be Crazy Horse’s face. “She knew that something had to be done to keep the interest of visitors and people who donate to the project,” Morgan said.
The face was completed in 1998 and a dedication was held. “She had an appreciation of media coverage,” Morgan said. The face was a huge draw, even though it was basically a guess — no verifiable photos of Crazy Horse, who died in 1877, have been found.
Other crowd attractions at the memorial include night dynamite blasts and laser shows.
Ruth Ziolkowski was a hands-on administrator and ambassador who could often be spotted in the tourist center’s Laughing Water restaurant, talking to visitors. And even after she was moved to hospice care, she participated in meetings via telephone until a few days before her death.
Born Ruth Ross on June 26, 1926, in Hartford, Conn., she met her future husband, briefly, when she was 13 years old. He was an already established sculptor living in the area — she and a few friends went to his house because movie actor Richard Bennett was visiting and they wanted his autograph.
In 1947, when she was 20, she traveled to the Black Hills of South Dakota as a volunteer to help with the recently started project to honor Crazy Horse, best known for his role in defeating federal troops in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn. She helped build the main residence and a 741-step wooden staircase leading to the top of the mountain.
Ruth and Korczak married in 1950, and over the years had 10 children. While he worked the mountain, she helped run income-producing projects, including a dairy farm, lumber mill, and the visitors center that has vastly grown over the years.
She didn’t expect to live to see the completion of the sculpture. It’s not even sure that her children, most of whom have been involved with the project in some way, will see it done.
But in a 1989 Los Angeles Times interview, she said that didn’t matter. “When you grow up with something, it becomes a part of you,” she said. “I wouldn’t know what else to do. As a matter of fact, I like what I do, I thoroughly enjoy every bit of it.”
Ruth Ziolkowski is survived by nine of her children: daughters Dawn, Jadwiga, Monique and Marinka; sons John, Adam, Casimir, Mark and Joel; 23 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Her daughter Anne died in 2011.
Photo via Flickr