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Loved or unloved, hang the governors’ portraits

If You Ask Me

There was one grace note as the political year ended and that was Gov. Dannel Malloy’s gallant assurance that his predecessor’s portrait will soon join her fellow former governors in the State Library.

Malloy stepped in when the Hearst papers reported there were no plans and no funds to commission a portrait of Jodi Rell, the governor from 2004 to 2011.

“Governor Rell should receive her full due honor and respect,” was her successor’s rapid response as he promised he would take care of the matter in the coming legislative season.

Seventy-one of Connecticut’s 87 governors, from John Haynes, appointed by the king in 1639, to John Rowland, whose final term was cut short and he was transferred to federal jurisdiction in 2004, are remembered with their portraits in the state library.

But the tradition has been disrupted in recent years by a reluctance to pay for the likenesses of the last three governors: Lowell Weicker, Rowland and now, Rell. The reasons seem to have been political in Weicker’s case, political and moral in Rowland’s and economical in Rell’s.

Weicker, who left the Republican Party of his birth after it sponsored his rise in politics from Greenwich first selectman to U.S. senator, had few champions from either party when time came to underwrite his portrait after he completed his one term as an Independent governor.

It got so bad, legislators were actually talking about hanging Weicker’s photograph next to the earlier governors, all of whom are immortalized in oil. But to show what sports they were, some considered spending a few thousand dollars on a really nice photo. After debate and delay, a Weicker portrait was commissioned, painted and hung in 1996.

Rowland was another matter. He may have had a few Republicans who were still fond of him, being, after all, the only governor elected to three, four-year terms but then, there was that other distinction. As a result, there was little inclination to spend $50,000 on a Rowland portrait or even $50 on a photo.

The problem was solved when a portrait of the pre-felonious Rowland turned up. A Connecticut artist, Robert Sibold, who told The New York Times he usually paints portraits of rich people’s kids, informed state librarian Kendall Wiggin he had painted Rowland early in his first term, but he didn’t know what had happened to the portrait.

Wiggin conducted a search and found Rowland in oils at the state-owned Harkness Memorial in Waterford where it had been taken down and stored after he went to jail.

The Department of Environmental Protection was delighted to turn over the painting to the library where, Wiggin informed his trustees in 2005, it would “be hung without fanfare.” The report to the board also noted Mrs. Rowland had called Wiggin to “express concern as to what the plaque might say” and he assured her it would only contain his years of service. She also told Wiggin she’d like to see “a better portrait in the future,” presumably also not accompanied by biographical highlights.

The portrait was hung while the honoree was in prison and with only library staff and reporters and photographers present for the fanfare-deficient ceremony. Once he was hung, a reporter observed Rowland appeared “slightly crooked” and Wiggin assured him it would be corrected.

With Rell out of office for nearly a year, there had been no effort to find the money to pay for her library portrait — the economy and all that. The Office of Policy and Management said the two-year budget passed last spring contained nothing for gubernatorial art and that’s when Malloy stepped in.

In doing the right thing for Rell, it can be hoped Malloy has revived a custom of honoring and remembering former governors by hanging their portraits in the state library just because they had been governor and without regard for their popularity — or previous felonies — in or out of office.

It’s called honoring the office. Portraits should be commissioned automatically following each governor’s term — out of respect for history and the roles these men and women played.

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at dahles@hotmail.com.