Constantina Agganis Orphanos had not seen her brother since 1955, and she was nervous. Harry Agganis had been an All-America quarterback at Boston University and a first baseman for his hometown Red Sox, but in the years since his death from a pulmonary embolism, memories of the 26-year-old scholar with the movie-star looks had faded. Now Orphanos was to be face-to-face with him again, and when the cover was lifted and she gazed into his eyes, she nearly fainted.
Harry had not changed at all.
This was no horror-movie nightmare: The New England Sports Museum, in Cambridge, Mass., had just unveiled a life-sized painted wooden sculpture of Agganis made by Armand LaMontagne of North Scituate, R.I., and after viewing the figure with its old BU uniform and left arm cocked to pass, Orphanos was sure her brother's image would no longer be endangered by the passage of time.
Unveiled on July 6, the Agganis sculpture joined LaMontagne's wooden versions of better-known New England legends Larry Bird, Bobby Orr and Carl Yastrzemski as the museum's top attractions. Similar works of Ted Williams and Babe Ruth stand inside the entrance to the Baseball Hall of Fame; they are the most photographed items in Cooperstown.
With hair, clothes and shoes all carved from single 1,800-to-2,500-pound blocks of basswood, LaMontagne's works often leave viewers staring in disbelief at what appears to be real skin, wool and leather. Sometimes amazement gives way to emotion; upon seeing his statue in 1985, the notoriously rough-edged Williams broke down and cried. "Armand captures a spark of personality in his work, which nobody else seems able to do in wood sculpture," says Roger Schroeder, who has written nine books on the subject. "Others attempt it and come up with something impressionistic or caricaturelike, but he makes subjects come alive. He's pushing wood to its limits."
The grandson of an architect and son of a construction-site superintendent, LaMontagne, 57, says he was "weaned on wood." Today he lives and works in a replica of a 17th-century wood-and-stone house he built and furnished himself, which sits alongside three other homes he built on a street in North Scituate. LaMontagne calls them "my four biggest sculptures," but in his studio it is apparent which work excites him most. His subjects have included George Patton and Eleanor Roosevelt, but autographed bats, balls and jerseys dominate the wall space between his handcrafted tools.
"Carving athletes is a thrill," says LaMontagne, who played varsity football at Boston College. "They are my heroes." Though LaMontagne earns roughly $200,000 per sculpture, he is more excited by the opportunities he has had to talk hitting with Williams or practice foul shooting with Bird when they visited his studio for modeling sessions. "I identify with them because of my work ethic," LaMontagne says. "When Larry asked me how I learned to do this, I told him it started when I was a seven-year-old kid and skipped dinner to try and whittle a gun. I worked with my hands and was constantly honing my craft, just like he did."
LaMontagne also has the stubborn pride of an athlete, which in some cases helps break down barriers. When Williams asked him, "Is this all there is?" upon seeing his half-completed sculpture, the sculptor handed him a chisel and shot back, "Do you want to finish it?" Williams laughed, and LaMontagne's childhood idol had become a friend.
LaMontagne puts six months of 80-hour weeks into each work, and as the end draws near, the slightest detail takes on great importance. He gave the Bird statue a last-minute "haircut" after discovering Larry had chopped his locks before the unveiling. By the time LaMontagne finishes a job, everything from Bird's fused right pinky to Yastrzemski's five o'clock shadow is perfect to within one eighth of an inch.
LaMontagne has another Williams sculpture going, this one depicting him at his other favorite pastime—fishing. "I hope it will be ready by spring," the artist says, thinking of Williams's poor health. "That's the start of baseball and fishing season, and even if he can't go fishing, this might cheer him up." Especially when he sees himself poised for immortality holding a 15-pound Atlantic salmon.