Your Village: Why is there a Ten Commandments monument in Plaza Park?

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The granite Ten Commandments monument on May’s Island in Cedar Rapids. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Why is there a Ten Commandments monument in the park on May’s Island? —Anonymous, Iowa City, asked in person

The story behind the Ten Commandments monument in Cedar Rapids’ Plaza Park on May’s Island probably isn’t what you imagine. Unless you think it involves a teenage car thief and a legendary movie director — then it’s exactly what you imagine.

It was donated to the city of Cedar Rapids by the Fraternal Order of the Eagles (FOE) in 1957, as part of a national campaign the Eagles had started the previous year. Depending on whose numbers you believe, the Eagles are responsible for anywhere from 200 to 4,000 of these monuments scattered around the country.

Made of granite, the monuments display what’s known as the abbreviated Protestant version of the commandments, based on Bible verses starting at Exodus 20:2. (There’s a slightly different version of the commandments, using verses starting at Deuteronomy 5:4, known as the Catholic version, even though Lutherans also use it.) Along with the abbreviated text, the monument has non-biblical decorative elements, including a bald eagle clutching an American flag and the “all-seeing eye” of the Freemasons (familiar from the back of the $1 bill).

The program was based on an idea by E. J. Ruegemer, a juvenile court judge in St. Cloud, Minnesota. In 1947, Ruegemer presided over the case of a 16-year-old who stole a car, and then accidentally ran over a priest. (The priest survived.) After personally investigating the case, the judge decided to go easy on the teenager.

According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “Ruegemer sentenced the boy to learn and live by the Ten Commandments.”

“‘He asked me what the Ten Commandments were,’ the judge recalled.”

Ruegener was stunned. And worried. Worried about the 16-year-old and about American morality in general. He decided to do something.

Ruegener was a member of FOE, a civic-improvement group founded in Seattle in 1898. He and his fellow St. Cloud Eagles started distributing framed copies of the Ten Commandments to schools and courthouses in Minnesota in 1951. Two years later, distribution went nationwide.

The whole thing might have amounted to nothing more than that, but in 1956, Cecil B. DeMille had a movie to promote.

DeMille had been a major film director for as long as Hollywood had been a synonym for movies. Literally. His 1914 movie The Squaw Man was the first feature film shot in Hollywood.

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By 1956, DeMille was 74 years old. He had fame, riches and a long history of commercially successful movies. What he didn’t have was an Academy Award for Best Director. He’d never even been nominated until 1952. DeMille had been angry about this for decades.

The movie that finally earned DeMille an Oscar nomination was The Greatest Show on Earth, an epic-style movie about circus life, starring Charlton Heston as a square-jawed circus manager. DeMille felt the Oscar was almost within his grasp. He was determined to win it with his next movie, The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as a square-jawed Moses.

It was, by design, a prestige picture. It was, by intention, Oscar-bait. It was also a remake.

DeMille had directed The Ten Commandments in 1923. Executives at Paramount, the same studio that produced the 1923 version, weren’t happy when DeMille proposed the remake. But The Greatest Show on Earth made a lot of money for Paramount, so the executives reluctantly agreed to a technicolor Moses.

As anyone who’s ever seen it will agree, there’s nothing subtle about The Ten Commandments. There was also nothing subtle about the promotional campaign for the movie.

At some point in making the movie, DeMille became aware the Eagles were papering America with the Ten Commandments. Before the movie’s November 1956 premier, DeMille called Ruegener.

DeMille wanted to link the Eagles’ program to the movie. But he wanted the program to be grander. DeMille wanted the suitable-for-framing commandments replaced with bronze monuments.

“I suggested Minnesota granite, and we had a deal,” Ruegemer told the Star-Tribune.

The deal was this: The Eagles would do all the work and pay for everything. DeMille and Paramount would provide some Hollywood glamour — they would send Heston, Yul Brenner (Rameses) or Martha Scott (Moses’s mother) to selected cities to give speeches when the monuments were donated or erected, as long as local theaters were playing The Ten Commandments.

The movie was playing in Cedar Rapids when the 1,600-pound monument was donated in April 1957, but Cedar Rapids didn’t get a celebrity.

The monument originally stood at the south end of Plaza Park facing Third Avenue. Over the years, there has been discussion about whether it should be on public property (Iowa City had one on the lawn of the Johnson County Courthouse that was removed in 2001), but it’s still in the park, although it’s been moved to a less prominent place.

As for the rest: the car thief reportedly became a law-abiding citizen, the Eagles kept erecting monuments until 2006 and The Ten Commandments won Best Picture. DeMille, however, wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 274.