George F. Johnson Memorial
Charles Keck (American, 1875-1951),
George F. Johnson Memorial, 1951
Location: Main Street, near Union-Endicott High School
“Simple, fearless, and understanding”-these are the words that the noted Binghamton-based photographer Foster Disinger used to characterize George F. Johnson. Disinger, who was particularly sensitive to Johnson’s larger-than-life persona and local significance, helped the famous American sculptor Charles Keck in giving visual form to those iconic traits in the bronze portrait of Johnson that stands upon this memorial.
The rigid, austere posture of the bronze figure is commanding, while Johnson’s facial expression exudes benevolence. The juxtaposition of quiet power and warm good will is characteristic of Keck’s work, and is present most notably in his famous sculptures of Father Duffy in Manhattan and of Lewis and Clark in Charlottesville, Virginia. Here, the bronze figure of Johnson stands on a polished granite exedra (a semicircular raised platform) with built-in seating; along its perimeter, a running text mixes quotations from the Bible with Johnson’s own words. Despite this aggrandizing juxtaposition, Keck aimed to convey both a sense of power and modesty in his design. In any event, the result impressed not only the photographer Disinger, but also the crowd of over 15,000 citizens that gathered in 1951 to witness the dedication ceremony of the memorial three years after Johnson’s death.
The legacy of Johnson—known locally and affectionately as “George F”—presents a history of early twentieth century American capitalism in microcosm. Johnson, the Triple Cities’ most significant industrialist, is famous for introducing the “square deal,” a business model highly progressive for its time that was meant to stimulate company profit while simultaneously supporting workers and their families (and, not coincidentally, to deter worker unionization). Johnson espoused humanitarian values while firmly situating himself within a corporate ethos; the intention was to benefit company and worker alike. Over ten thousand employees enjoyed an innovative 40-hour work week, subsidized housing, an extensive medical plan, and even free shoes for the children. However, employee happiness was contingent upon high productivity; it is said that company factories produced over fifty million shoes each year during the Second World War. George F’s “square deal” fostered a sense of community, but also mandated considerable worker loyalty. The expectation that workers—and indeed, the larger Triple Cities community—would feel grateful to Johnson is apparent in the very attitude conveyed by Keck’s sculpture.
As Keck’s last work before his death, the memorial is a powerful depiction of George F. Johnson as an integral figure of the Triple Cities community. To this day, the recreational infrastructure introduced by Johnson remains in the form of the Triple Cities’ many free carousels, parks and pools. Given its position adjacent to both Guiseppi Moretti’s Workers’ Memorial (dedicated to the workers of the Endicott-Johnson Company who served in World War I) and the George F. Johnson library, Keck’s monument is appropriately situated within the infrastructure that the powerful businessman helped to create.
Researched by: Jonathan Finkelstein