New life for old plaque

Late Friday morning, local artist Maureen Frances carefully put the finishing touches on a pair of clay hands, held together in prayer for soldiers over the crescent moon shape of Vietnam, that would soon be cast into bronze.

She was crafting a near-identical replacement for the Vietnam veterans memorial plaque that was stolen from Walnut Park in late December.

For reference, she had only a few old snapshots of the bronze memorial and memories of the classes she'd taken with the creator of the original plaque, the famous Cuban-born artist Rosa Estebanez.

Estebanez, who lived in Petaluma about half of her life, is responsible for crafting the state seal in San Francisco and her work can be found catalogued with the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Just as the Vietnam War was coming to an end, she was commissioned to make Petaluma's Vietnam vets plaque, one of the first of its kind in the area. The plaque, which stood for decades on a platform near the gazebo in Walnut Park, honored 15 Petaluma soldiers who died in Vietnam.

It was stolen in December, presumably for the value of its metal. In no time, a coalition sprang up to replace it, including Joe Noriel of the Petaluma Historical Museum, local veterans, and some of the men responsible for erecting the original plaque, among others. Numerous local businesses and the Petaluma firefighters' union offered donations to fund the replacement and other improvements to the somewhat neglected Walnut Park.

The group decided it wanted to stick to the original design as much as possible, and while Estebanez is no longer alive, some of her students are — including Maureen Frances.

"It's unfortunate that Rosa isn't around, but thankfully some of her students are," Noriel said. "It's a great tie-in."

Frances was already involved in improvements at the park through her work with Petaluma Valley Rotary Club to install a bench honoring veteran and Rotarian Ron Flagg, as well as red, white and blue landscaping. She remembers taking classes with Estebanez in the mid 70s, not long after she had sculpted the plaque.

"They were fun," she recalled in her basement studio on Friday, remembering the artist's sense of humor.

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