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A valuable 74-year-old painting that hung for years in the principal's office at Gardner High School will soon begin paying dividends for students in that community.
The Massachusetts House late last week passed a bill establishing a scholarship fund, using money from the 2014 sale of a painting that Norman Rockwell donated to a Gardner principal in the 1940s.
Rep. Jonathan Zlotnik of Gardner sponsored the bill (H 3565) to authorize the establishment of the Williams-Rockwell Educational Gift Fund. Of the $1.9 million yield from the sale of Rockwell's 1941 painting "Willie Gillis in Convoy," 50 percent would go toward scholarships for students pursuing the arts and 50 percent to students pursuing academic endeavors.
In the 1940s, Gardner High School Principal F. Earl Williams wanted to start an art collection at the school and began soliciting donations, Zlotnik said.
At the time, paintings from Rockwell's wartime Willie Gillis series were appearing on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
Gillis was a fictional GI in World War II, and the series "was Rockwell's first effort to, through his art, bring support to the war effort," said Jeremy Clowe, manager of media services at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
"The series is a lighthearted look. It never shows him in any true combat," Clowe said. "They're mostly with food packages and his fellow soldiers are looking on very interested . . . "
But "Willie Gillis in Convoy" was the only painting showing Gillis near battle lines, and Clowe believes it didn't run in the Post because the paper deemed it too close to the conflict.
Rockwell gave the painting to Williams, and "the painting hung unbeknownst to most people - or just about everybody by the end - in the principal's office of Gardner High," Zlotnik said.
After the painting was discovered, experts certified it was a bona fide Rockwell. The Gardner School Committee decided to sell the painting because of concerns about security and insurance, Gardner City Council President Jim Walsh said.
It was sold at auction by Sotheby's, a broker of fine art and collectibles, on May 21, 2014. The purchaser has remained anonymous, but the painting is currently on display at the Rockwell Museum.
There was some controversy over whether the income should largely be used for the promotion of the arts or not.
"The City Council wanted to express their authority and decided, well, it was a piece of art, so it should only go toward art," Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke said. "And I said no way in heck ... so I vetoed it. And then, aha! It forced us to work together, and like all partnerships, we landed in the middle eventually."
Hawke described the fund as "sort of like having 2,000 bake sales all at once." Despite the "squabbles," everyone wanted what's best for the Gardner schools and he can't wait to get the fund set up, he said.
It will be managed by nine trustees: the mayor, president of the city council, treasurer and superintendent of schools, along with a school committee representative and four members appointed by the mayor.
Superintendent Denise Clemons said the use of the funds "hasn't really been settled yet," but she's "hoping to make it comprehensive for all students."
The bill, written by Gardner City Council, was filed in June and reported favorably by the House Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government in July. Having passed in the House on Thursday, the bill now moves to the Senate. Zlotnik hopes to have the fund in place by the end of this school year.
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