LONG BEACH, MS (WLOX) - A symbol of Southern Miss pride now graces a new gathering spot for students at USM Gulf Park. On Thursday, the Long Beach campus hosted a celebration to thank a USM alumnus for a creative and generous gift.
"This is a fantastic morning for a very special occasion," USM President Dr. Rodney Bennett announced to the crowd.
Spirits soared at USM Gulf Park as more than 100 people gathered to welcome the latest addition to the family. In the middle of Eagle Plaza, behind Hardy Hall, stands a bronze eagle sculpture rising 15-feet high and weighing 1,650 pounds. Its name is "Lofty Return."
"Hopefully, 100-150 years from now, people are still looking at this piece," said USM Alumnus Chuck Scianna.
Scianna and his wife, Rita, commissioned and donated the statue to Gulf Park, along with a larger one to the Hattiesburg campus. The idea for the gifts was hatched more than two years ago.
"This piece and one in Hattiesburg will unite both the Gulf Park and Hattiesburg campuses. This campus is so important to me, so important to the people of South Mississippi," said Scianna. "I am hoping these would be gathering spaces and that it could be representative of what this university meant to me."
The message on the plaque explains the symbolism of "Lofty Return," that Southern Miss prepares students to spread their wings and succeed in life, and invites them to return to the nest to give back.
"If you look at that statue, we know that he's landing. He's also taking off. So come back. While you're here, let us get you ready for take-off," said Scianna.
The statue was dedicated to USM President Emeritus Dr. Aubrey Lucas.
"You honored me in a way I never dreamed would happen and for that, I'm truly grateful," said Lucas. "Lofty Return reminds us of creative beauty. When talent and generosity come together to enrich our landscape and thereby bringing us even greater joy and happiness."
Others also expressed their joy that the eagle has landed in the right place.
"When we were installing it about a week and a half ago, part of my heart is here, because this is almost like giving up one of my kids. It's very satisfying to know that it's found a wonderful home," said David Anderson of Idaho, who designed and crafted both sculptures.
USM also dedicated the larger eagle sculpture on the Hattiesburg campus Thursday.