PARK CITY — Twenty-one years ago, when he was 15 years old and entering ninth grade in his hometown of Cheyenne, Wyo., Rich Haines ran head-on into disappointment.
He went to sign up for the one elective he was looking forward to — and gym class was full.
A friend of his sister's had a suggestion for a substitute.
"If you want an easy A," she said, "take sculpture."
So Rich signed up for sculpture.
And he's been sculpting ever since.
Fast forward those 21 years and Rich Haines, at 36, is counted among the top sculptors in the country. Specializing in wildlife and Western themes, his bronzes can be found in both private and public collections across the West, as well as in his gallery on lower Main Street in Park City.
And as of this past October, his reach extended all the way to Georgia.
Next time you're passing by Fort Benning, the massive U.S. Army base outside Columbus that annually processes some 150,000 soldiers, check out the 12-foot-high eagles that stand atop the 50-foot pedestals at the entrance to the base.
Haines cast them in his studio not far from the Salt Lake International Airport. They were then shipped to Fort Benning, where on Oct. 13, 2011, they were unveiled as part of the base's gateway monument, a $6.8 million project five years in the making.
Next to one of Haines' eagles is a sculpture of a horse and rider named "Old Bill," a replica of a Frederick Remington original. Next to the other Haines eagle is a sculpture of an infantryman known in army lore as "Iron Mike."
Maj. Gen. Robert Brown has proclaimed the monument "the most magnificent entryway to any military base in the world." And while the general might be biased, considering he's Fort Benning's commander, he also might be right. (You can judge for yourself at YouTube. Search for "Fort Benning National Monument.")
The civilian head of the gateway project, a man named John Flournoy, commissioned Haines to sculpt the eagles after strolling into Haines' gallery in Jackson, Wyo., a couple of years ago.
Flournoy had been scouring the country looking for just the right eagle to appropriately symbolize "power to the soldiers."
He saw a bronzed eagle on display. His search was over.
"I want two of those," he told Rich. "Only bigger."
The 12-foot-tall bronzes are among the largest of Haines' creations, but, at that, they're not as large as perhaps his most well-known sculpture: the 10-foot-by-12-foot ram in front of Moby Arena on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Rare is the CSU student who doesn't stand in front of the ram in cap and gown on graduation day to have his or her picture taken.
"Yeah, it's one of the biggest deals in Colorado," attests Haines, normally not the type to draw attention to himself.
But in the case of the ram he makes an exception because he happens to be a graduate of Colorado State's longtime rival and arch-enemy, the University of Wyoming.
For CSU to let a UW grad sculpt its ram, that's saying something.
"A lot of Colorado people weren't happy about it when they found out where I was from, but a major CSU donor liked my work," shrugs Haines, who notes, "They first wanted to put the rear facing Wyoming, but they didn't end up doing that."
Haines has gotten a lot of notoriety from the CSU ram but says having his eagles at the entrance of Fort Benning in a true national monument "is my most meaningful work."
Still a young man, Haines can't quite believe all that's happened since he signed up for that sculpture class at Cheyenne's Central High School when he was 15.
He was able to have some of his early teenage work displayed at a Cheyenne gallery owned by Harvey Deselms. That got him noticed by the eminent Wyoming sculptor Chris Navarro, who became his mentor. About 4,000 apprentice hours later, he moved to Utah and in 1999 opened his first gallery in Park City (richhainesgalleries.com).
In the meantime he made it through college in Laramie. He first signed on with a wrestling scholarship, but over time he reluctantly left the gym behind so he could concentrate on sculpting. He sold sculptures to pay for school.
He wound up getting an accounting degree, fulfilling a promise he made to his mom, who impressed on him the practicality of having a fallback plan, just in case.
But as it's turned out, Haines hasn't needed one.
"Within two weeks (of enrolling in the sculpture class in high school), I knew what I wanted to do with my life," says Rich. "I remember I was bummed that the gym class was full, but sometimes things work out anyway."
As every student graduating from Colorado State, and every soldier coming and going from Fort Benning, can now readily attest.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.