Honoring the Man Who Put a Hat on the Cat

Dr. Seuss's hometown plans to remember the author and his work with bronze sculptures.

They're building a statue of a man of renown, setting it up in the middle of town.

Not a man on a horse or a tank or a gun, but a man at his work, who liked to have fun.

His name was Ted Geisel, but once on the loose, he found fame as the great Dr. Seuss.

For in Springfield, Mass., his ideas were hatched, of the Lorax, the Sneetches, and the Cat in the Hat.

FROM the quirky lollipop domes on the city's Armory to the crazy-colored Victorian homes on Mulberry Street, the traces of Dr. Seuss are all around the industrial city where the bestselling children's writer grew up.

"It was like an inside joke between him and the people who knew Springfield,'' says Joseph Carvallho, director of the Springfield Library and Museums. "Everyone's childhood is so important to them; he took those memories and incorporated them into his work.''

At the turn of the century, when Theodor Geisel was growing up in western Massachusetts, Springfield had 29 auto factories - more than Detroit at the time. And many of the city's products figured in his books.

The cops that putt-putt through his books ride red Indian brand motorcycles, which were made in Springfield. The crazy contraption Sylvester McMonkey McBean used to wipe out prejudice by swapping stars on Sneetches looked remarkably like the Knox tractor, manufactured in Springfield. The wacky names like McBean and McGellette "came right out of the Springfield phone directory,'' Mr. Carvallho says. Geisel's nom de plume came from another of the town's residents - his German-born grandfather, whose last name was Seuss.

Story roots

Even though he wrote his books in sunny La Jolla, Calif., some of the stories he concocted had their roots in his childhood memories. "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" may be taken as a metaphor for the way the Springfield factory owners treated the German immigrants who worked in their factories at the turn of the century, Carvallho says. "The Lorax" - the environmental parable warning of the danger of cutting down trees - may be his memory of the desolation the factories left in the town, Carvallho says.

And while Springfield was on Dr. Seuss's mind, now Dr. Seuss will be remembered in Springfield.

Springfield returns the favor

In front of the library and three museums, the city plans a series of six bronze sculptures celebrating their favorite son and his most popular books, if it can raise $6 million to pay for them. The sculptures will be executed by Geisel's stepdaughter, Lark Grey Dimond-Cates.

"I should be scared witless on this, but I don't have any doubts," Ms. Dimond-Cates says from her home in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. "I've thought more about him now than I ever did in my life, trying to get it right. Dr. Seuss was so pure, so magical. I'm trying to find a way to capture that."

Dr. Seuss wasn't always so appreciated. His children's books first popped up during 1950s, in the Dick and Jane period of children's books. Though he grew up in Springfield - home of Merriam-Webster, the arbiter of proper language - his books tossed propriety on its ear. His chaotic scenes, topsy-turvy grammar, and made-up words were reviled by the education establishment, which feared children would be confused. Instead, his books let children in on an inside joke.

"Seuss was cautioning children - indirectly, never preaching, but using whimsy and satire - not to take the world, especially the adult world, on its full face value,'' says California State Librarian Kevin Starr.

When they're completed in 1999, the sculptures will be positioned in the park to point up the messages in Dr. Seuss's books. Near the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum, Yertle the Turtle will stand on a stack of 14 other turtles, waiting to be toppled, just as the kings of history were. "It's the story of dictatorship versus democracy, the flow of history," Carvallho says.

In front of the science museum, the Lorax will sit on a stump, as a reminder of the dangers of unbridled development. Near the library, Sam I Am will hold a tray of green eggs and ham, from the story that became the third bestselling book in the English language.

Parallel to Mulberry Street will stand a replica of his first book, "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street." In front of the library will stand a statue of Geisel working at his desk, with the Cat in the Hat peering over his shoulder. "It's like a double portrait," Dimond-Cates says. "They're alter egos - both are tall, elegant, shy, and mischievous."

It's the largest, most important piece of the set, and the one giving Dimond-Cates the most trouble. "I'm going over and over it, trying to get it right," she says. "It has to be perfect. Not just for my reputation - it's my family."

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