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Students Kissed Her Feet for Good Luck. Now She’s Missing Her Head.

A marble statue of the Roman goddess of wisdom that presided over Wells College for 156 years, surviving both a devastating fire in 1888 and an attempted kidnapping in 1975, was embraced by students as a symbol of resilience for generations.

Until Minerva was decapitated by a backhoe.

The statue was accidentally damaged during a hasty move this month after the college, nestled against one of the Finger Lakes in central New York, said financial challenges would make the spring semester its last.

At a college where students have long kissed Minerva’s feet for good luck and referred to “her” as a fellow student, the beheading is an unavoidable metaphor for the angst surrounding the institution’s sudden closure.

Wells was a women’s college for the bulk of its history, and many alumni cherish how the godly representative of wisdom and war, embodied in a woman, looked over the campus on Cayuga Lake for generations.

“I lost my mother a couple years ago,” said Caolan MacMahon, who graduated from Wells in 1985. “This is almost harder.”

Workers moving the statue on June 12 strapped Minerva to a furniture dolly before hanging the statue horizontally from a backhoe’s bucket with moving straps. Too heavy for the supports, her head snapped off.

It hit the ground with a loud thump, said Linda Schwab, the historian for the surrounding village of Aurora. She said the backhoe operator had put his hands over his face and yelled an expletive.

Schwab, who graduated from Wells in 1973 and taught chemistry there, said the accident felt like a final blow.

“It’s kind of unfolding out before you, just how awful this is, on top of everything else,” she said.

Wells announced on April 29 that it would close because it did “not have adequate financial resources to continue.” It cited broad challenges to small colleges nationwide, including the coronavirus pandemic, inflation and a shrinking pool of students. (Enrollment data shows that 353 students were enrolled at Wells in the fall 2023 term. The college began accepting male students in 2005.)

Jonathan Gibralter, who served as the college’s president for nine years, said in an interview that plans to professionally move Minerva to protect it from vandalism and theft had still been taking shape when a group of Wells employees chose to act on its own.

“Several members of the staff, in their kind and generous effort to save the college money under the circumstances, decided to try and move it themselves,” Gibralter said in an interview last week. “They are horrified.”

On Thursday, the college’s board of trustees announced that it had “parted ways” with Gibralter and was “working to name the next leader of Wells College.” Gibralter said the decision was unrelated to the statue’s fate; the college, which hopes to disperse its assets by the end of the year, did not respond to a request for comment.

The statue was a gift for the college’s 1868 founding from a son of Henry Wells, a businessman who started the institution and was instrumental in the founding of American Express and what would become Wells Fargo.

Schwab said the statue was believed to be an 1860s copy of the Athena Giustiniani, itself a Roman replica of a Greek bronze sculpture. The Roman statue, which is in the Vatican Museums, is named for the Italian art collector who owned it after its discovery in the 1600s.

Some alumni are using Minerva’s decapitation as a rallying cry.

The Cleveland Commission, a small group of graduates trying to stop the college’s closure via legal injunction, experienced a one-day jump in donations of $9,500 after the beheading. The group is named after Frances Cleveland, who graduated from Wells before becoming the first lady of the United States.

When Kristy Lee Parkin heard that the statue’s head had broken off, she stood up from her desk and screamed.

Parkin, who graduated from Wells in 2005 and taught her now-teenage daughter to kiss the statue’s feet for good luck when she was 2 years old, said Minerva symbolized what it meant to be a “Wells woman.”

“She teaches us to be strong in the face of adversity, she teaches us to look and to research and learn everything that we can,” said Parkin, one of the founders of the Cleveland Commission. “The mission of the college, which we still repeat to this day, is to think critically, reason wisely and act humanely.”

After a class reunion in May that was attended by many graduates as a send-off for their alma mater, the Roman goddess was covered in roses. Now her marble head and body are in an undisclosed location on campus, Gibralter said, resting inside a steel-lined vault.

Wells said it was consulting with outside experts and would professionally repair the damage as soon as possible. But that has not reassured alumni who are upset by the accident and disgruntled by the college’s closure.

“It’s an embodiment of how they’ve been handling this entire situation,” Parkin said. “What are they going to do? Gorilla Glue on her head?”

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