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Man apologizes for stealing poet’s bust from Wichita State in 1987

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, August 25, 2013, at 6:42 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, August 26, 2013, at 6:02 a.m.

Mitchel Potter admits he stole a bronze bust of American poet Robert Frost from Wichita State University in 1987.

Back then, he was a 19-year-old fraternity pledge, he said, aided by alcohol and adolescence.

In retrospect, he said, he should have left the sculpture alone. If he had, there would have been no consequences and no 25-year-old crime.

“It’s a hard, hard lesson,” said Potter, 45. “It’s embarrassing to have something come back after years.”

But, he added, the bust “was meant to be a gift for you guys, and I shouldn’t have had that in my possession.”

Friday marks a year since the “Bust of Robert Frost” was returned to WSU’s Ulrich Museum of Art, 25 years after it was reported stolen by university staff members. Until last year, the bust was the only piece of artwork stolen in recent memory that was never replaced or returned to the university’s Martin H. Bush Outdoor Sculpture Collection.

Potter, a plumber and father of three, was arrested in August 2012 after a tip called in to the WSU police department led authorities to the bust at his Lamar, Mo., home. This summer, he contacted The Eagle to apologize to WSU and to explain what drove him to steal the bust more than a quarter-century ago.

“I just wanted to let the university and Wichita know that I am truly apologetic for my actions as a youth, and I just didn’t want people to think that I’d come up there and took it maliciously,” he said.

“That wasn’t my intention.”

‘Lot of beer bongs’

Potter spoke on the condition The Eagle not name the university or fraternity he belonged to at the time of the theft, to protect their integrity.

Told by a man now grown, the tale unfolds thusly:

The caper started, Potter said, in late March 1987 at a bar in a town he refused to name. Potter – a student at a Kansas university – was drinking with friends when, he said, fraternity pledges from WSU approached.

“They took me back to Wichita State. And we took up with an active chapter there,” he said, for a weekend of alcohol and fun.

“I was doing a lot of beer bongs, I guess.”

By midmorning on March 31, shenanigans between intoxicated friends moved from a fraternity house to the heart of campus. That’s when the bust, he said, ended up in his possession.

“We were running through some bushes,” Potter remembered. He was with another young man, he said, whose name he didn’t recall.

“And we ran into the statue.”

The poet’s likeness teetered and shook, Potter remembers. Then the bolts securing it to its concrete pedestal loosened, and it fell to the ground.

“It was like, ‘Wow! Look at that. That’s cool,’ ” Potter said. So they picked it up and fled.

“We ran over to vehicles. And we put it in somebody’s trunk, then went back to the place in Kansas where we had been.”

When Potter returned to his home in Lamar, he said, the statue sat in his basement. It survived more than 25 years, multiple moves and two divorces.

Potter admits that over the years he’s told close friends the story of stealing the bust. But, he said, he knew nothing of its value nor who the poet was. He never defaced nor sold it.

“I didn’t make any plans to go up there and rob (WSU of) the statue,” Potter explained. “It was just adolescent drinking. I really wasn’t in the right mind at that time.”

He added: “But if it wouldn’t have fell off the stand, probably we never would’ve ended up with it.”

Authorities said last year the thief had no apparent ties to the university and was probably “just passing through.” Potter was not a WSU student and says he has never returned to Wichita.

Other art thefts

The Frost bust is one of four sculptures stolen in the 1980s from the university’s then-budding outdoor sculpture collection, according to Eagle news reports from the time.

In July 1985, a 25-pound bust of French Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir went missing, only to turn up a few months later on a local television station’s loading dock.

Nearly two years later, university staff members discovered the Frost bust missing. Then someone took the father figure in the “Family Group,” a four-piece bronze sculpture that now hangs complete on the clock tower of WSU’s Elliott Hall.

When a fourth sculpture – a demure young girl called “Innocence” – disappeared in June 1987, the university removed seven other small pieces from the grounds.

Today, all but Frost are back on display.

The Frost piece was acquired in 1983 with a grant from George and Virginia Ablah and is one of two sculptures of the poet by Massachusetts artist Walker Hancock. Martin Bush, who worked for WSU from 1971 to 1989, reported it missing 25 years ago.

“I always thought that someone had taken it as a prank and dropped it in the river there,” Bush, of New York, said when told of Potter’s apology.

“I think he’s paid his penalty, as far as I’m concerned. I’m delighted that the university has it back.”

WSU’s 76-piece outdoor sculpture collection remains open to the public. Beyond routine campus patrols, there are no additional security measures in place to guard it, said Det. Jeff Rider of WSU’s police department.

The “Bust of Robert Frost” remains in storage among about 6,000 other pieces of artwork owned by WSU, said Bob Workman, director of the university’s Ulrich Museum of Art. There is no immediate plan to permanently redisplay it.

‘Different choices’

In June 2012, a woman whom Potter says he knows – but whom he and authorities refused to name – called WSU and told police where to find the bust. After weeks of sifting through documents, Rider confirmed the theft and contacted the Missouri Highway Patrol to aid in the case.

On Aug. 29, a Missouri trooper arrived at Potter’s Lamar home and spotted the bust “in plain view” through a broken garage window, court records show. The bust, valued at $25,000 by Missouri authorities, was confiscated and returned to WSU the following day.

Potter was arrested and charged with receiving stolen property valued between $1,000 and $25,000 – a felony that carries jail time and a two- to seven-year prison term under Missouri law.

In a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of receiving stolen property. He was sentenced to two years of probation and must complete 100 hours of community service, court records show.

At his final court hearing, Potter said the prosecutor read a Robert Frost poem: “The Road Not Taken.” The piece speaks of choosing between two paths and of retelling the tale later in life.

“I guess it was kind of a twist of fate, you know, how his (Frost’s) poem related to me,” Potter said. “I could have made different choices.”

He added: “Over the years, you know, I had a lot of regrets about it. But I guess … I didn’t know the right way to get it back to where it needed to be.

“I’m glad (WSU) has it back.”

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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