Who is Harry Dumpty?

My wife and I spent a few months living in Madison, Wisconsin back in 2008. I had taken a new job as a psychiatrist there. It was the second of two blunders moving from academic medicine to private practice, the first being a move to Illinois, also very short-lived.

We really liked Madison and sometimes dream of moving back there after I’ve retired. It’s an interesting city with many sights to see and things to do.

One of the interesting sights we saw was a mysterious bronze sculpture that I’ve only just today found the explanation for. It looks like Humpty Dumpty of the familiar nursery rhyme and riddle. I found out a lot more about Humpty Dumpty and his odd brother Harry Dumpty, who is actually the subject of the sculpture found in front of the Madison Municipal Building just south of the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and East Doty Street.

Harry Dumpty

I never knew the sculpture was Harry Dumpty. It sat above a large concrete wall with an inscription on it which I just assumed was connected to the sculpture and probably still sits there although we couldn’t find it in 2012 when we returned for a visit:

“David James Schaefer, 1955-2004
was a phenomenal phenomenon. Though plagued by the progressive debilities of cerebral palsy, “Schaefer” was an uncomplaining and generous friend to many. Disability Rights Specialist for the City of Madison in three different settings, his death of a heart attack in September 2004 made a hole in our community which cannot ever be filled.
Erected by the Friends of Schaefer at private expense.”

It turns out Harry Dumpty has no connection to David James Schaefer. In fact, Harry is one of several similar sculptures created by artist Brent George, who made him in 1997, saying he’s Humpty’s brother. If you look closely at the book sitting open next to Harry, it’s entitled “Harry Dumpty.” Brent George’s name is below it. Brent’s phone number is on the front of the wall. Evidently somebody called him and asked about the sculpture. Brent says there’s no connection between the sculpture and the inscription.

A copy of Harry Dumpty sits outside of the Dekalb Public Library in Dekalb, Illinois. Brent moved from there to Madison, Wisconsin. In the local online newspaper, the Daily Chronicle, news editor Jillian Duchnowski wrote a couple of stories about it in 2014 which eventually led to the proposal of a contest to find a rhyme for him similar to Humpty’s. I couldn’t find the results. One newspaper speculated that Harry is less well-known because he never fell off a wall.

In the online news website, Isthmus, a staff writer named David Medaris wrote a few paragraphs about Harry in 2008, which we somehow missed back when we were first learning about Madison. Medaris comments that this kind of irreverent art is common in Europe and is a marker for cities where “…people who have a sense of humor live with gusto.” He identifies Brent George as the artist but never mentions David James Schaefer.

There has been a lot of speculation about deep political and scientific meanings for Humpty Dumpty, but it’s likely just a nursery rhyme and riddle.

On the other hand, there’s very little written about Harry Dumpty. If anyone knows the results of the Dekalb, Illinois poetry contest mentioned above, please let me know.

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