The statue on the Commons draws smiles from passers-by. People pose with her for group shots or selfies. She’s worn a Santa hat and festive ribbons. Some walk by without ever knowing who she was.
“Child of Ithaca” is a sculpture by Roberto G. Bertoia, an associate professor of art who teaches sculpture in Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art & Planning. The educator and sculptor was approached about the project not long after the untimely death of Erin Schlather, twelve years ago today.
It was the 4th of July weekend, and Erin, a Vassar alum, a Georgetown law student, and a legislative analyst at the Pentagon, was back in Ithaca for a wedding. She died the night of July 3rd in a car accident, on her way back from the wedding, “when her car struck a guardrail and overturned in a water-filled ravine,” according to a Washington Post obituary.
In early talks about the sculpture, Bertoia remembers Erin’s father, Ithaca attorney Ray Schlather, saying “that the resulting piece should be more than an individual memorial and become a celebration of all youth, their hopes, their aspirations.”
The artist is encouraged that “the piece seems to be well received by the public,” he says. “It was placed so as to be accessible rather than separated by a plinth or base,” which allows people to sit with Erin, often even mirroring her cup of coffee and her book.
Bertoia’s daughters were “a year or two” behind Erin in school, so he knew her and her family. “She made an impression on me as a very happy, confident young person,” he says, adding, “I suppose having daughters close to her in age made the tragedy more poignant.”
The statue of Erin, and the table, are cast in Bronze, and the chairs are brass, says Bertoia, which will “ensure longevity” with “little or no maintenance.” Despite that, the sculpture still needed to be protected during the years-long project to tear up and rebuild the Ithaca Commons, the pedestrian mall at the heart of Downtown Ithaca.
Michael Kuo, who managed the Ithaca Commons rebuild project for the City of Ithaca, says the sculpture “was removed from the old Commons in the very early stages of the project on April 3, 2013,” and stored at the Streets & Facilities yard on Pier Road for just over two years. Kuo says “it was returned to the site on April 7, 2015,” but remained inaccessible, in a fenced-in area, until late last July. The fencing came down just in time for Erin’s Ithaca High School Class of 1995’s 20th reunion.
Before she left for Vassar, Erin was known for her stage productions at Ithaca High School, and even performed in “Evita” at the Hangar Theatre.
“Never before had we met someone like her, nor can we imagine anyone her equal,” wrote Vassar classmate Nicole Zahka in the college’s alumni magazine, “and she was one of the most giving, kind, and truly brilliant people in the world.”
Dozens of Vassar classmates attended Erin’s memorial service, which one, Ithaca journalist M. Tye Wolfe, said he considered more “a celebration of life,” in a Tompkins Weekly column. Another classmate read “Ithaka,” the C.P. Cavafy poem that incoming Cornell president Beth Garrett, who died this past winter, also quoted at her inauguration. The poem, about Ulysses’s journey home, seems fitting to both women.
“She exists now in the things that she loved, and the things that remind us so powerfully of her,” Zahka wrote. “Because of that, we will never truly be without her; each time we drink a pint or sip red wine, each time we see a strong woman excel in politics, each time we all get together, we miss Erin, we love her and we will honor her memory by being more energetic, more dedicated, and most importantly, always living our lives to the fullest.”
Erin’s memory lives on in the Community Foundation of Tompkins County’s Erin Aljoe Schlather Dedicated Memorial Fund, which supports the performing arts, sustainability efforts, job training, equitable transportation, and the Tompkins County Public Library’s STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art, and math programming.
Erin’s memory also lives on in a sculpture completed about a decade ago, bearing her initials and the inscriptions “Child of Ithaca” and “Citizen of the World.”