Making a Difference: Memorial to “Madison’s Uncle Sam” has a new home
Volunteers move memorial to late “Uncle Sam’s” American Legion Post
MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -His real name was Wilburt “Bill” Leppien, but to many thousands of people over the years, he was “Uncle Sam.”
Leppien’s daughter, Lynn Duesing said, “He was Uncle Sam. He lived and breathed Uncle Sam every day.” Hoping to spread patriotism, Duesing said her Dad first donned an Uncle Sam costume in 1956 and, “went to 49 state capitals, and marched in over 5,000 parades in his 25 years, including 5 presidential inauguration parades.”
Leppien handed out small American flags to children along the parade route. Duesing marched in a lot of parades with her father. Her job was to make sure Uncle Sam had a steady supply of flags. Duesing said, he marched all over the country, handing out hundreds of thousands of flags and picture cards to kids. She said, “He just loved it. He lived and breathed it. He did it mainly for the kids, to give them some thought of patriotism.”
A World War II veteran, Leppien joined the American Legion after the war, eventually becoming American Legion Post 501 Commander in Madison. We asked her why her Dad chose to portray Uncle Sam in his quest to promote a love of country. She said, fondly, “Because he looked like him. He looked and breathed (Uncle Sam), and he was six foot three. He was prematurely gray.”
In addition to the parades, Uncle Sam visited veterans and children in the hospital....and over the years, Leppien’s dedication to playing Uncle Sam became the focus of articles and interviews. Leppien once told a WISM-AM radio interviewer, “Uncle Sam’s Mr. USA. He’s a personification of our United States. The patriotic spirit is really what I’m concerned about with my portrayal of Uncle Sam.”
Sadly, Leppien died rather suddenly after marching as Uncle Sam in a half dozen parades over the 4th of July holiday in 1981. Duesing said, ”He died too young. Just 59 years old.” A memorial plaque and flagpole were placed in his memory at Westgate Mall, near his neighborhood.
When she heard Westgate Mall was slated to be demolished, Duesing said, “I contacted the new (property) developer about two years ago. We stayed in touch. He promised to let me know when we could set up the removal (of the monument) this Spring. True to his word, we got the call.”
She also talked to American Legion Post 501, wondering if they’d be willing to find a new home for the memorial, given Leppien had been post commander. Duesing recalled, “They said, we’ll take it! We’ve got a perfect spot with a flag pole and I was like, yes! Yes!”
She spoke to Nate Amble, owner of Madison Commercial Landscapes in Oregon. He is the grandson of an American Legion Auxiliary Member. Duesing said, “He brought 3 employees who all volunteered their time” to help move the 1,400 pound boulder.
As she watched them moving the boulder from Westgate Mall to Post 501 in March she said, “It’s joy. It’s going to a new home.”
On a sunny June 14 (Flag Day), Duesing, along with family, members and officers of Post 501, including Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Mary Kolar, all gathered to re-dedicate the memorial at its new home--Leppien’s old Legion post.
Post 501 Commander Thomas Stolarczyk reflected on Leppien’s dedication over the years: “You might find others out there that are trying to be like him, but he was the original Uncle Sam,” he said.
Secretary Kolar said to Duesing, “Thank you very much for everything that you, and Bill (Leppien), and your family have done. It’s the epitome of people who have served their country in uniform and those who support them—they continue to serve. To travel not just throughout Wisconsin, but throughout our country, reminding people of the importance of that flag that represents the freedom that service members have fought for.”
When asked why preserving the memorial was important, Secretary Kolar said, “This is a reminder. This is a memorial, again, of that service. We need these reminders that these are people who continue to serve. It’s so wonderful to not have it forgotten and pushed away during construction, but to be put in a prominent place.”
When we asked if any of those assembled had any remarks to share, Legionnaire Bud Mautz stepped forward and said, in tribute to Leppien, ”I admired him from afar. I always wanted to be just like him. I never attained that designation, but I tried. But he was a fantastic man who was so patriotic. As you can see from his picture, he embodied Uncle Sam.”
Reflecting on the day, Duesing said about the monument, “It’s at its new home--its forever home--where a lot of people are going to see it with the flag flying above. He would be thrilled. He would be so thrilled to have it back home.”
Not only is the memorial now back home at his Legion post, his costume is at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Lasting tributes to the Madison man who was Uncle Sam.
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