My original hed for this tale was “A story of Reno resident Mel Vhay, who was originally married to architect David Vhay, then married Don Powers following David’s passing, and was the daughter of the Mackay Statue and Mt. Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum.” I saw it in print and decided it was too wordy, even for me. So, you read the above hed. My contemporary Des Powers sent me an extremely well-written e-mail about Mel Vhay, so I here post it for all to see:
Thanks for the update on the development of your column on the Holiday Hotel’s “Mug Hunt.” Newt Crumley’s wife, Fran Crumley, and Mel were very good friends. As you likely know, Mel’s dad was Gutzon Borglum [pictured to the right], sculptor of Mt. Rushmore and friend of Clarence Mackay. Hence, the statue that Gutzon sculpted, of his friend Clarence Mackay, that stands on the Quad to this day.
Mel and my dad were married in 1990 until my dad’s passing in 1995. Our mom passed away in 1988. While married to my dad, Mel’s name was Mel Borglum Vhay Powers. Kind of a long one, so she went by Mel Powers during those years. I was very fond of her and felt very close to Mel during the years I knew her. Mel was immediately very welcoming to my sisters and me, and to our extended families. She was a remarkable woman and lived a very interesting and fascinating life. She told a few stories over the years about how the concept of what became Mt. Rushmore came about, and some stories from the days during her father’s sculpting of Mt. Rushmore. She told the story of when she met President Franklin Roosevelt when he came to the dedication of Mt. Rushmore in 1941. The stories she told still have me absolutely riveted to this day.
[Here, I’ll interject a thought: Mel and David Vhay’s son Tink lives in Reno with his wife Muffy. I haven’t spoken to Tink but would surmise that he and Muffy were aboard for this also. ed.]
For me, in addition to being my step-mother who I loved, she was a living connection to significant times in American history. In 1991, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mt. Rushmore was held at what Mel’s family affectionately refers to as “The Mountain.” I went to the celebration with Mel, my dad, many of Mel’s family and a few thousand others whose names I don’t recall. President George H.W. Bush presided at the celebration. The celebration was in July 1991. President Bush had already nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and the President could not hold back including in his official remarks, on the 50th anniversary of Mt. Rushmore, some comments on how important it was to see that Clarence Thomas received approval from the U.S. Senate for his appointment to the United States Supreme Court. Well, as we know, the rest is history.
The seat I received for the celebration entitled me to a “third-class” view. Mel and my dad were “down in front” enjoying a “first-class” view right in front of the podium and across the aisle from John Sununu. Mel took some pictures of the speakers at the lectern on the podium. I know that he was quite busy with other matters and likely overlooked getting many of the “small things” in his life done on a timely basis. Anyway, I found a very nice viewing position on the top of the roof of a utility building. As I got settled in, a young man, dressed in Army attire, who was apparently an ROTC cadet or a 90-day wonder in training, approached me and said, “Sir, you need to move”. My response was, of course,
“Why?” His response to my response was, “Because the Secret Service says you have to.” I continued my protestation by saying, “I’m just sitting here and have already gone through security”. He said, “Sir, you need to move.” So I did, most likely with my movements being observed through various types of scopes held by various agents associated with various federal agencies. I found another place to view the festivities, but it was not as nice as that spot on that roof.
Joining Mel and my dad on the trip was Fran Crumley. Fran was a delightful lady and always very warm and welcoming to my sisters and me. I occasionally saw Fran at family events subsequent to the Mt. Rushmore trip and I was always greeted warmly by her. Fran had a great amount of class and I have remained impressed by her to this day.
Perhaps sometime you could write a column on Gutzon Borglum’s connection to Reno and the Comstock. Gutzon Borglum, in my view, has yet to be fully recognized for his place in American history. His connection to Reno and the Comstock’s history, in my recollection, has received only very brief references, if at all, over the years. His impact on American history lives on to this day. For example, in a conversation with her, I asked Mel why Teddy Roosevelt is on Mt. Rushmore along with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Teddy Roosevelt, while a significant American and a significant American president, to me, was not in the same category, in terms of their impact on American history, as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, yet he is with them on Mt. Rushmore. Mel told me that Teddy Roosevelt is on Mt. Rushmore because, in her father’s opinion, he made very significant contributions to America, which he did, but also because Teddy and Gutzon were friends of long standing.
Footnote: Mel (Mary Ellis) Vhay Powers, who resided in Lakeridge Terrace, passed away in September of 2002.
Good words from a man not a writer, but a CPA. The letter goes on with some personal information. But Des’ point is well-taken; Borglum, who had local roots, is a person who should hold a higher place in local lore. We know of Mt. Rushmore, and of the John Mackay statue on the Quad. Few know that Borglum was tapped by the National Park Service to re-sculpt the hand and arm of Lady Liberty, who was originally sculpted by Bartholde holding the torch in an awkward position, and thus was redone to the present appearance. I’ll work toward more Borglum stories as time marches on. And, I thank Des for a great letter. KB