Although the decision to name the University after George Mason came in 1959, the idea for a statue of him on campus was not proposed until thirty years later, in 1989. Like many celebrated traditions at Mason, the George Mason Statue started as a student initiative.
George Mason (1725-1792) a Fairfax, Virginia planter authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Bill of Rights and Constitution, on which the United States Bill of Rights is based. A member of the original Constitutional Convention, Mason refused to sign the initial draft of the Constitution because it did not include a Bill of Rights.
In 1959 the president of The University of Virginia, Colgate W. Darden, Jr, suggested that a new name be chosen for its branch college at Bailey's Crossroads. Three names were offered to faculty, staff, and students for their consideration: "University College" (the name it had been using since its inception in 1957), "Northern Virginia College", and "George Mason College". The voting ended in a virtual three-way tie, and the University's Board of Visitors broke the tie by choosing "George Mason" at its December meeting that year.
In the late 1980s, the Student Government pointed up that GMU needed new ideas and traditions to boost school spirit and a sense of community. In February 1989 it publicly proposed erecting a statue of the school’s namesake on the quad to foster campus pride, unity and tradition. They estimated that the statue would cost between $30,000 and $50,000 and hoped that donations from student organizations would cover the costs over a five-year period. Although they made this announcement in 1989, students privately proposed the statue 2 years earlier, according to the official dedication program. Unfortunately, college students are generally not in a financial position to donate, the Student Government’s fundraising campaign was unsuccessful.
In 1992, the Student Government asked for assistance from Mason administrators. The Offices of the Provost and Student Affairs sponsored a competition for a nationally renowned sculptor to design the George Mason statue. It is challenging for artists to depict George Mason. The only surviving portrait of Mason shows him in his thirties and was painted nearly 20 years after his death. Out of four finalists, the students comprising the George Mason Statue Committee selected the 18-inch clay model made by Wendy M. Ross.
Ross studied at the University of Wisconsin and the San Francisco Art Institute and later received a Master of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design. She currently maintains studios in Bethesda, Maryland, and Oregon. Ross has enjoyed a decades-long career and created sculptures for the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Capitol, and National Park Service. Her concept for the George Mason statue shows him presenting his first draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. She visited Mason’s home, Gunston Hall to do research, and the writing table in the sculpture replicates the one in his study. The books on the table are by John Locke, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This selection of authors reflects Mason’s philosophical influences regarding ideas of personal liberty. Ross was also selected as the sculptor for the George Mason memorial on the National Mall, dedicated on April 9, 2002.
After attempts to secure public funds failed, the Arts Gala Committee, led by Joanne Johnson, commissioned the sculpture on August 1, 1995. They contributed $148,500, 93% of its $159,000 cost and presented the George Mason sculpture as a gift to the GMU community. The 10-foot-tall bronze statue was formally dedicated along with the Johnson Center on April 12, 1996. It was the first 3-D depiction of George Mason in United States history. The statue is located on the southern end of Wilkins Plaza and can be found between the Johnson Center and the Harris Theatre.
As the students envisioned, the George Mason statue has become a beloved landmark on campus with traditions and superstitions attached to it. It is a tradition for graduating students to get a photo with George. Student groups dress George up for festive occasions and milestones, like graduation and sporting events. He also dons t-shirts and holds signs to participate in student advocacy. Ross stated in interviews that she loves when students dress up the statue and how iconic it has become on campus. In addition, there are superstitions attached to the statue, bringing both good and bad luck. Students rub George’s left toe for good luck before important exams or papers. GMU legends say stepping on the plaques around the statue brings bad luck. If a current student does this, they will not graduate in four years, and a prospective student who does so will not be admitted to Mason.