Chamber's eagle carving may honor aircrew
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:35 PM
"It's a symbol of Oak Harbor unity that could be unveiled on what may be one of area's greatest days of unification - when the detained VQ-1 aircrew return home from China.The dedication of a life-sized wood carving of an American bald eagle may be part of what city leaders expect will be a community-wide celebration when the aircrew - held since April 1 by the Chinese government on Hainan Island - are finally released.Heidecker said the chamber is still waiting to decide if the dedication of the carving can be coordinated with the Whidbey aircrew's homecoming.The time of the carving's unveiling is timely, said Priscilla Heidecker, executive director of the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce, for which the carving was made. When they finally come home, the return of the (Navy EP-3E) crewmembers will mean so much to this community ... the military means so much to this community.We are they and they are we, Heidecker said.The painted wood carving, depicting an eagle perched on a rock, was created by longtime Oak Harbor resident Roger Leonhardi, 69, who worked for years as an air traffic control officer at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and then as city of Oak Harbor harbormaster before retiring in 1991.I was out, helping to build the fence (to the chamber's new office building), he said, when one of the chamber's board members said the group wanted a wood carving as a wall display. I gladly accepted ... Oak Harbor has given so much to me.Leonhardi said he made the carving out of tupelo, a soft, pliable wood grown near New Orleans swampland. The piece measures about 3 feet high, 2 feet across and weighs about 30 pounds.Heidecker said the carving was developed in honor of the chamber's headquarters at 32630 State Route 20. The $190,000 building was completed a little less than a year ago. The carving was originally scheduled to be be officially dedicated during a June 21 chamber event marking the building's first year.The carving, added Heidecker, also represents the hopes and dreams of many leaders that Oak Harbor becomes a closer community.For years, Heidecker lamented, it seemed difficult for many interests in the city to cooperate and work together. We've had a kind of disjointed community, she said. However, she said, Oak Harbor businesses and other groups recently have shown a greater spirit of participation - and that has laid the groundwork for a stronger community future.That, Heidecker said, was what the carved eagle was supposed to represent. The tie-in with the detained flight crew - though it could prove a powerful and unifying message - was a mere coincidence.But, coincidences, it seems, abound.As it turns out, Leonhardi, a former Navy pilot, many years ago flew with VQ-I, the same unit to which the detained aircrew belong. He said he feels more than sympathetic with the flight crew who were taken into Chinese custody after a collision with a Chinese jetfighter forced them to make an emergency landing.We used to run missions like those all the time, Leonhardi said.At the insistence of his mother about over two decades ago, Leonhardi took up woodworking in the footsteps of his father, who carved wooden ducks. Ever since, he has devoted most of his art to caricature of wildlife, especially birds.I enjoy watching a mallard duck ... a Canada goose ... the grace and speed of a falcon, he said. The carving itself gives me peace of mind - the feel of a good piece of wood is very cathartic.Although he was quick to point out he's not a tree-hugger, Leonhardi said woodcarving taught him to be more conservation-minded. His art brought him so close to the wonders of nature, he said, he couldn't help but develop a greater sense that people must learn to live in greater harmony with the environment.Beyond that, Leonhardi said, the carved eagle is about the environment of giving.I felt a whole lot of people have complained and have not really offered their assistance, their help in improving the town we live in. "