A Dying Sculptor Fights Vandals Over Myrna Loy

updated 05/29/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

William Van Orden has never met Myrna Loy, yet in a touching way he is totally devoted to the film star of the '30s and '40s. Over the past 10 years he has repeatedly and painstakingly restored a California statue of Loy, repairing time and again the graceful beauty defaced by unseen hoodlums. Now Van Orden is gravely ill, and he worries that the statue that has stood for 66 years outside Venice High School in Los Angeles may not long survive him.

Loy, 83, a veteran of more than 100 films and living in New York, was still Myrna Williams and a junior at Venice High when she posed for one of the figures in sculptor Harry F. Winebrenner's "Fountain of Education" in 1923. Commissioned as a school art project, the sculpture stood for decades unmolested outside the high school. But since 1977 Winebrenner's work has been targeted by vandals, who have crushed it with sledgehammers, defaced it with tar and feathers and even decapitated it with dynamite.

A house painter and sometime sculptor, Van Orden was driving past the school in 1979 when he saw the blasted statuary for the first time. "I said, 'My God, what did they do to it?' " he says. "The heads were gone. The arms were gone. It was trashed." Van Orden stopped his car, took out his tools and went to work. "The school officials came out thinking I was some kind of nut, but I explained to them that I wanted to fix the statues in my spare time. They wanted to know for how much, and I said, 'For nothing.' "

And so Van Orden, now 66, began his Sisyphean task. Every year he has repaired the sculpture; every year the wreckers have returned. In 1985 Van Orden developed cancer and doctors amputated his left ear. In March of this year doctors removed a brain tumor. Later that same day, Van Orden was told he had two months to live. He shared the painful news with his 18-year-old son, Rodan, with whom he lives in a rented two-room house.

Now Van Orden is trying to restore the sculpture one last time. "I can't climb around the statues like I used to," he says, "so I sculpted the heads in clay, and they got somebody to make the molds." Van Orden looks up at the Loy statue. "This is the last time I'm going to do this," he says. "I'm going to try to finish before my birthday—June 9. I just hope I can hang on that long."

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