On Halloween 70 years ago, an iconic American monument was completed — Mount Rushmore. It took 14 years of blasting and chiseling granite to finish the work. And chief stone carver Luigi Del Bianco, an Italian immigrant, was there for most of them. Del Bianco was responsible for many of the finer details in Lincoln's face.
Del Bianco's daughter Gloria and her nephew, Lou, recently sat down at StoryCorps to share their memories of him and the work he did. The Mount Rushmore project began in 1927, when Del Bianco was 35. And it ended 14 years later.
"I remember when he got older, he had dust in the lungs from carving, and he would have to go to the hospital," says Gloria, 65. "And they'd have to put my father on the stretcher because he couldn't breathe. And as he's trying to leave, he'd stop them."
"Just a minute," Gloria recalls her father saying. "Just a minute!"
Luigi wanted his slippers — and he wouldn't leave the house without them.
Gloria says her father was also determined to decide just how long he would be staying in the hospital:
My brother Vincent would go to pick him up, and the lady at the hospital would say, "Mr. Del Bianco's not here, he left." My brother would say, "What do you mean he left? He wasn't discharged." "Oh, well that doesn't matter, your father, when he's ready to leave, he just got up and left," that was it.
Luigi Del Bianco died of accelerated silicosis, which occurs after prolonged periods of inhaling silica dust. Although the members of the Rushmore crew were issued masks to protect themselves from the dust, many of the carvers found them too hot to wear, so they simply went without.
"They did an autopsy on my father, and they looked at his lungs," Gloria says. "And the doctors were amazed that he lived as long as he lived, because the dust in his lungs was like a rock."
By the time Lou got to know his grandfather and namesake, Luigi was becoming increasingly frail — at least in the physical sense.
"I remember him almost leaning on me, as a little kid, for support, he was so —he was so tired," Lou says. "And then he would always say the same thing, and I remember it like it was yesterday. He would say, 'I am Luigi, you are Luigi.' So there was just this unmistakable bond."
And as Lou got older, he learned more about his grandfather's place in history.
"I just remember in second grade, my mother — she's the one that said, 'Oh, Grandpa carved Lincoln's eyes,' " Lou says.
In 1966, Luigi gave an interview in which he discussed how difficult it was to work on the monument.
"I would do it again, even knowing all the hardships involved," he said. "I would work at Mount Rushmore even without pay, if necessary. It was a great privilege granted me."
During the Mount Rushmore project, Del Bianco moved his family to Keystone, S.D., where he worked with sculptor Gutzon Borglum to craft the monument out of a mountainside. But in his own workshop, he often made small sculptures and busts. And he asked his little girl to sit for him.
"You know, my father did not talk about Mount Rushmore that much. He was a very modest man," Gloria says.
"And when I was little, my father wanted to carve me, but being the rambunctious, impatient child that I was, I wouldn't sit for him," she says. "And my mother would say, 'Please go sit for your father — he won't keep you long, just a little bit.' "
But that sitting never took place.
"Of course, I regret it terribly today," Gloria says. "I would have loved to have had a bust. You know, I didn't realize the importance of my father's work on Mount Rushmore till I was much older."
Luigi Del Bianco died on Jan. 20, 1969. Lou Del Bianco has created a website honoring his grandfather's contributions to the monument.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Nadia Reiman.