Ponchatoula — You might expect to see a statue of the English author G.K. Chesterton in London or Edinburgh or maybe even New York City. But Ponchatoula? That’s a bit unusual.
Thanks to Dr. Robert “Bob” Benson, a massive sculpture of his favorite writer stands at the front of Chesterton Square, the event facility Benson built in 2008 and named for Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
Chesterton was a prolific writer known for his works of philosophy, poetry, criticism, mystery and religion. He was a convert to Catholicism and was extremely conservative in his Christian beliefs. He is especially known for his popular sayings, which are still quoted some 76 years after his death in 1936.
“He is the most quoted writer in the English language next to Shakespeare,” said Benson, who discovered Chesterton in a bookstore in the late 1980s.
“I was dealing with family issues and just getting started in my profession,” Benson said. The work that caught his eye was “Brave New Family,” a collection of writings on the family.
“I have a large family, six sons and one daughter,” Benson said. “That makes for a noisy dynamic environment at home, so I started reading Chesterton’s thoughts about the family and the Christian family in particular.”
Even though Chesterton came from the very staid culture of post-Edwardian England, his idea of the family was noise and drama.
“What it did for me in life was that it changed the whole paradigm of worrying about keeping everything in line and everyone conforming and minding manners,” Benson said. “It allowed latitude in individual expression in the family.”
Benson contrasts Chesterton’s view of the family with the typical modern family. “What we do in modern society is that we belong to associations mostly formed with people of similar backgrounds and similar educations,” Benson said. “We send our kids to school with other kids of similar backgrounds.”
On the other hand, Chesterton described the family in terms of a novel with all the elements of romance literature — risk, triumph and failure; laughter and tears; and most of all unpredictability.
“If you take away the elements of a novel, you convert it into a scientific paper,” Benson said, “And if nothing else, a scientific paper is boring.”
Benson grew up in New Orleans and moved to Ponchatoula in 1980 to practice dermatology. In 1993, he and his wife, Donna, and their seven children moved to New Zealand, where he opened a dermatology and cosmetic surgery practice. “These were the glory years of our family life,” Benson said.
The family later moved to Hattiesburg, Miss., then back to New Zealand, again to Hattiesburg and finally back to Ponchatoula in 2000.
“When we came back, I set up my office downtown to bring people to Ponchatoula to help invigorate the downtown of Ponchatoula,” he said. Benson has a dermatology office and a cosmetic surgery facility and medical spa.
Benson was able to purchase some vacant, rundown or gutted buildings. “I could take advantage of the GO Zone incentives (Gulf Opportunity Zone tax incentives, a federal program following Katrina) and invoke the talents of my contractor son Christopher and at once invest heavily in the town of Ponchatoula to upgrade the structures,” he said.
He built Chesterton Square and dedicated it to Chesterton, he said, because Chesterton loved family and family celebrations. The 10,000-square-foot building has become a leading venue for community events and one of the area’s most popular spots for wedding receptions. The facility, which is set up to do light shows, can comfortably seat 600 people and has held as many as 1,000 for a reception.
All Benson said he needed to make Chesterton Square complete was a statue of Chesterton himself. So Benson contacted Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society. Ahlquist put Benson in contact with David Wanner, a sculptor in Milwaukee. Wanner had told Ahlquist that he had always wanted to do a statue of Chesterton.
“My view was of having a Chesterton who had just stepped off the train in Ponchatoula with his typically disheveled hair and his hat and surveying the scene of small-town America in 1920, because Chesterton would have been a household name in Ponchatoula in 1920,” Benson said.
In April 2009, the statue arrived in Ponchatoula. It has generated interest and curiosity and has led many locals to investigate who Chesterton was.
“The most amazing thing about the guy to me was his ability to not only take incredibly complex philosophical issues but to boil them down to very simple dichotomies of principle, but to do it in such a way that it makes you laugh,” Benson said. “He had an incredible gift for finding the humor in the human condition.”