The Champ

Bill Bangert wanted a world-class domed stadium in St. Louis County, but all he got was a tiny town. Now the 77-year-old dreamer is back in Missouri with a few more nutty ideas.

Years later, Hubert Eaton, who founded the Forest Lawn Memorial Parks in Southern California, heard about the painting and began searching for it. In 1944, one of Eaton's representatives found it in a Chicago warehouse, wrapped around a 60-foot telephone pole. He bought it, brought the painting to California and built a special building to house it.

Bangert believes St. Louis citizens should get a chance to see the painting. "Nobody knows of this," he says. "It's sort of a hidden venture, and the only reason it was not shown was it was too big to be seen, so it lay in a warehouse." His idea involves creating a smaller replica painting measuring about 20 feet long that could be displayed at Busch Stadium in a 10-inch-deep lightbox with a pedestal describing the painting's history. The painting's actual dimensions could be marked off with some kind of tape so people could see just how big the actual painting is. "It could be done very cheaply," he says, "and it would draw people downtown and from all over the world." Bangert has written and spoken to representatives of St. Louis 2004 about his idea, but, so far, it hasn't gone far.

"I got a price on having the original [reproduced], and it was less than $10,000. It's a pittance, and I suggested it to 2004 committee. I said I'd arrange to get financing for it, from athletes and such interested in such a thing, if only they would get permission from Busch Stadium to put it there. They're going to tear it down anyway a year or two after 2004 anyway, if their plans go ahead." But he hasn't gotten much response from officials with 2004. "They said they wished me luck on it, and so forth."

Bangert won a medal in the 1985 World Veterans Games in Rome. He continues to throw the shot put and discus.
Bangert won a medal in the 1985 World Veterans Games in Rome. He continues to throw the shot put and discus.

Peter Sortino, president of St. Louis 2004, is unfamiliar with the details of Bangert's idea but says the proposal sounds "very interesting." As planning for a 2004 celebration moves forward, Sortino says, it will be given some consideration. "There are going to be a lot of people involved in the celebration -- it's much bigger than me considering it," he says. "There are going to be a lot of ideas, and they have to be vetted to a certain degree. This is one idea that could possibly be something."

Displaying a replica of a long-forgotten religious painting is likely Bangert's last grand idea. And this is a man full of unusual ideas. When he dies, for instance, he wants to be cremated and to have his remains put into the objects that represent the track-and-field events he's competed in -- such as a shot put -- and given as "a memento" to his daughters.

But of all his ideas, Champ remains his favorite. Every time he drives into St. Louis, Bangert says, he makes a point of cruising by the village. All that is left of his home is a driveway leading to a precipitous drop-off at the edge of the quarry. Still, Bangert views Champ as his greatest accomplishment.

"It will always be there," Bangert says. "They may have wiped me out, but they can't wipe away the history of it. It's there. I started it, and I don't care who reaped all the profits -- they can't deny that it's there."

And Bangert says he has no bitterness over the way things turned out. "There was a time when I felt an injustice in not necessarily sharing in the wealth it created but in sort of the propriety of seeing it through," he says. "But I found out a long time ago, as an athlete, you have to lose before you can become a real champion. You have to experience losses. That was one of them. And, at 77 years old today, I don't have any regrets at all. God has been very good to me."

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