A sculpture in memory of a girl who loved to read has been removed from storage, reconfigured, and installed in front of the Cherry Hill Public Library.
"I'm overwhelmed," says Sally Callaghan, the indefatigable leader of the equally indefatigable band of art lovers who together saved a piece of cultural history few others seemed to care about all that much.
"It took 13 years to get to this."
We're standing outside the library, where the sculptor David Ascalon's handsome reinterpretation of the original piece commands a grassy spot overlooking Kings Highway.
Inspired by a preliminary design by the late Stamatis "Nick" Burpulis, a member of Callaghan's group, Ascalon took a piece that had consisted of a single 14-foot pillar and created a lighter, less imposing trio of poles. The new sculpture was installed March 9.
"This is a much better presentation," says Ascalon, whose studio in West Berlin, Camden County, is known for its stained glass and other sacred and secular work.
"It's dramatic," says Fred Adelson, a Rowan University art history professor and member of the group.
"An artistic achievement for Cherry Hill," adds Sybil Kleinfeld, another Callaghan ally.
The original piece memorialized Valerie Porter, 13, who collapsed while dancing with a friend in the kitchen of her home in the Kingston section Feb. 11, 1966, and died of a recently diagnosed neurological condition.
Her mother, Jenny Porter, was then president of the library board. The family hired sculptor George Greenamyer, who created a 15-foot wooden pillar adorned with fanciful steel curlicues he designed and flame-cut in his studio.
It was Greenamyer's first commission, and it would yield Cherry Hill's first commissioned piece of public sculpture.
In 1968, the finished work of art was anchored in the main stairwell of the township's previous library building. It remained there until the facility - designed by the Camden-born architect Malcolm Wells - closed in late 2004.
Apparently, little thought had been given to the future of the Greenamyer piece, which despite its impressive size, prominent location, and poignant backstory, seemed not to have captured much public attention.
"I wondered how many times I had been in that library and never noticed the sculpture," says Callaghan, who recalls being told about the lack of a salvage plan not long before the library was to close.
Callaghan and her allies worked fast to ensure that Greenamyer's work was removed, disassembled, and stored in the basement of the new library. Then they lobbied long and hard to have it reinstalled somewhere on the premises.
"Now it can be seen, and appreciated, at last," Callaghan says. "I love it."
The new installation "is well done," Greenamyer, 76, says from his studio in Marshfield, Mass., where he reviewed photographs of the finished work Friday.
"Originally, of course, it had more punch," he says. "But somebody made some good decisions. They did a good job."
Library director Laverne Mann also is gracious about the new installation, noting that it brings to three the number of pieces of sculpture on the grounds.
But it seems fair to say that in the decade or more the sculpture was stored in the library's basement, enthusiasm for displaying it was . . . less than overwhelming.
So much so that the library sought to sell the piece in 2013.
A regular patron of the library in the late 1970s, I admired the original; it reminded me of an industrial-strength beanstalk fit for a giant.
But Greenamyer says he was inspired not by childhood things but by Wells' architecture.
Even Jenny Porter, long widowed and living alone in San Diego, acknowledged that the piece was "unusual." But she kept in touch with library and township officials, as well as Callaghan's group, determined that it be displayed again.
The sculpture "should [continue to be] enjoyed by the people of Cherry Hill," she told me during a 2013 telephone interview.
Valerie "was a sweetheart," her mother said, adding that she hoped a restored sculpture would be a source of "visual joy."
Mann insists that the library "was never opposed" to displaying the sculpture.
"It just came down to funds being available," she says.
Last fall, Jenny Porter arranged for her son, Michael - Valerie's brother - to provide $20,000 to refurbish and install the sculpture.
And in January, at age 92, Jenny Porter died.
Her ashes have been interred in the burial ground of the nearby Unitarian Universalist Church on Kings Highway, close to those of her husband, Jack, and daughter Valerie.
"It's a little bittersweet," Susan Almeleh, Jenny's niece, says from San Diego.
"It was a huge wish of hers to see it [installed] again," notes Almeleh, 56.
"Sadly, she died two months short of seeing it completed. But I'm sure she knows."