What started out as a labor of love for his wife, Carol, has evolved into a monument by Calvin Williams that is worthy of a trip just to see it, like visiting one of the wonders of South Mississippi.
The memorial at Vancleave No. 2 Cemetery began with a marble replica of William Story’s Angel of Grief from the 1890s, and it has grown to include an Egyptian bench made of rare golden desert marble, four columns, a huge marble marker to recognize the Williams’ family history in South Mississippi and a marble ledger that’s 7 feet by 2 feet, 4 inches thick and lists Williams’ daughters.
You can see the columns from Jim Ramsay Road, a glimpse of white that starts the intrigue. It sits a few hundred feet from the entrance. The monument contains 9 tons of marble on a 12-by-28 slab engineered to hold the disproportional weight of the individual pieces.
But the heart of the piece is the grieving angel.
Williams, who has traveled the world as a construction manager with oil companies, first saw a reclining, weeping angel statue at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. The history behind the original is a romantic tragedy, but Williams wanted to express his love for his wife, who is still alive, and the women in his life — his daughters, his mother and his grandmother.
This is the third Angel of Grief replica statue for Mississippi — 46 in the U.S. altogether, according to Europeans who track and visit them, Williams said — including 10 in Texas, three in New York and five in California.
A history of love
The original Angel of Grief was carved in Rome by Story, an American attorney who became a renowned sculptor, for the grave of his wife who died in the late 1800s. He grieved her death so much, the story goes, that he was encouraged to put the grief into a piece of art. He produced the angel but nothing after that and died a year later.
Williams first saw it in 1979 when he had finished a job with an oil company and was taking his wife and children on a sightseeing trip through Europe. They were at the cemetery looking for the graves of John Keats and Percy Shelley.
“I ran into this thing accidentally,” Williams said. “It’s a stunning piece. It takes your breath away.”
The thought came that he would like to do that for his wife. They were high school sweethearts, married 50 years. Carol has traveled the world with him and worked as his mate, office and life manager. She is the moderator that holds the family together, the leveler and the emotional support.
“To me, it’s about how I feel about my wife,” Williams told the Sun Herald. “I think men should honor their wives in some physical way. It’s the Cleopatra, the Taj Mahal. It’s the love of one man for one woman.”
His idea became a memorial at the cemetery, because neither he nor Carol planned to be buried. They plan to be cremated.
But as he worked on the project, it grew.
Carol wanted to do something for him and she knew he was impressed with a bench he saw in Iran made of gold desert marble, from a palace in Egypt. And it became part of the project, with an inscription to him and a quote from his favorite poem: “I am the master of my fate, the captain of may soul.”
Then it grew again.
Unique, as all love stories are
The monument, placed near the Williams’ family plot, gives a nod to the family’s history as well as Carol and Calvin’s five daughters.
Williams said he didn’t ask the rest of the family what they thought about the project because he didn’t want any advice to change it. He wanted it to be his project, his way.
He considered it for 34 years, then started the project in 2013. It took him three years to build.
With his background as a construction manager, Calvin Williams planned ahead and handled every detail, Carol Williams said, scheduling Italian quarries for them to visit for the selection of the marble, commissioning the artists, hiring an agent to receive the pieces, overseeing the lettering and finding the company to engineer the foundation.
He’s a planner, a strategist, a manager and adventurer who traveled as a child with a military father and didn’t even realize his family was from South Mississippi until he did research. His father was a B-17 bomber pilot in World War II and retired to Vancleave. Later, Calvin Williams discovered his great-grandfather was a timber buyer for Dantzler Lumber Co., his grandparents ran a store in Biloxi and his family history dates back to the 1840 census.
She was born and raised in Vancleave. She’d never been out of the area until her high school track team went to New Orleans. She still has family there.
They have settled in Ocean Springs now, he in his 70s and she in her 60s.
A journey filled with love
On the angel, his inscription to her is about a wonderful journey filled with love and adventure.
The finished angel stayed crated at a hardware store in Lucedale for more than a year, waiting.
When she first saw it, she was taken by its beauty and detail, right down to the angel’s fingernails.
“A lot of men love their wives,” she said, “and have a great love story to tell.”
But when it comes down to paying for an expression of that love, “They rationalize their way out of it,” she said.
She said when her husband first said, “I want to do that for you,” she said, “Yeah, how are you going to do that?”
She said she has since learned not to underestimate him.
The memorial sits at the end of a paved road not a block from the cemetery entrance.
“I want people’s spirits to be lifted when they see it,” he said.
It took a lot of resources to put together.
“If I were a multimillionaire, I would have bought the whole cemetery,” he said, “but for a working guy, I think it’s pretty decent.”