A controversial picture of Jesus removed from a Chanute public middle school last week was a memorial to a student who died there in gym class in 1956.
The print of Walter Sallman’s famous “Head of Christ” painting was hung at what was then Royster Junior High School shortly after the death of Duane Eastburn, a 14-year-old ninth-grader.
The youth died at school on Oct. 17, 1956, according to Chanute school superintendent Richard Proffitt and Dwight Youngberg, the husband of one of Duane Eastburn’s three surviving sisters.
The school district removed the religious picture last week on the advice of its lawyer after a demand from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national group that advocates for separation of church and state. A resident photographed the picture during a recent back-to-school open house and sent it to the foundation, asking that it intervene, school and foundation officials said.
The decision to remove the picture has been unpopular in the predominantly Christian community, which has 9,200 people and 30 churches.
Some residents have met in prayer near the school to encourage the district to put the painting back. Others have called the superintendent to complain directly, Proffitt said.
The frame around the picture bears a small brass plaque with the name of the painting, “Head of Christ,” and a notation that it was in memoriam of Duane Eastburn, Proffitt said.
Youngberg said Duane collapsed in a school gym class and died from a swollen gland that stopped his breathing. The coach tried to revive him with CPR but was unsuccessful, Youngberg said.
Youngberg, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at the time, said Duane played saxophone and they were in the school band together, although they didn’t know each other well. He said his wife was only 9 at the time and doesn’t remember much about it.
His own most vivid memory of the incident was when the principal of the school released the students to walk down the street to the Wilson-Johnson Mortuary to view Duane’s body and pay their last respects.
“Many of the students that were there were crying and upset,” he said. “I know he was well-liked.”
Youngberg said the picture was put up later that fall. He said he believes it was paid for by the student council from its small budget for student activities.
Jeff Jackson, a constitutional law professor at Washburn University in Topeka, said the tragedy surrounding the picture makes it “a closer call” as to whether it’s legal for the school to display it without violating the First Amendment prohibition on government endorsing religions.
But “I think it’s probably still the right move to take it down,” he said.
The key issue today would be whether children currently attending the school would know and appreciate the history or simply see it as a school-sponsored endorsement of Christianity.
“I think it’s probably still on the side of endorsement,” he said, adding that the image itself might pass the constitutionality test “if it had been part of a larger memorial that made its purpose clearer.”
Freedom From Religion Foundation lawyer Andrew Seidel said the group won’t withdraw its removal request.
District officials have no plans to put the picture back up and have been in contact with Eastburn’s family about what to do with it, Proffitt said.
Late Wednesday, the family issued a written statement saying they respect the law and the district’s decision but are “saddened and disappointed” at the removal of the picture from the school.
“The family has followed the many comments on social media and had determined not to comment to continue to honor the memory of our brother,” the statement said. “We were, however, saddened by the vitriol displayed on many of the media sites regarding the removal of the memorial portrait and the division that it was apparently causing in our hometown. We are encouraged by comments of those who indicated an increased conviction that Christ still reigns in their hearts and lives because of this controversy.”
None of the immediate family of Duane Eastburn still live in Chanute. Youngberg and his wife, Kathy, live in Arizona, and the other two sisters, LaDonna and Leah, live with their husbands in Dodge City and Leawood, Youngberg said. All six signed the family’s statement.
Youngberg said the family has asked the district to turn control of the picture over to them, but they haven’t yet decided whether they would rather keep it in the family or donate it to a church.
It originally hung in what was called the “trade school” building, which housed shop and career classes. Youngberg said he believes the picture was put there because it was also the building where the band practiced and students would see it while making their way to that classroom.
It later was moved to a hallway in a new Royster school building built in the mid-1960s. The school has since been renamed Royster Middle School.
Seidel said the situation is similar to a case in which Utah allowed a group to set up roadside crosses to memorialize highway patrol officers killed in the line of duty. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, he said.
“The court looked at it and said you can’t use religious displays to memorialize people on public property,” he said.
Seidel said it’s different from the religious symbols displayed at military cemeteries, because in that case, soldiers themselves request the religious identification on their graves when they enlist.
He said he thinks the best solution in Chanute is for the district to give the picture to the family and let them decide whether to keep it or put it on display at a church or other private property setting.
“One of those is the right call,” he said.
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.