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A ‘MILEY-STONE’ FOR THE FAMILY OF EAGLES

From Beaumont to bullion coinage
By Mike Fuljenz

 Silver anniversaries are major occasions for every American family – and that includes the “Family of Eagles” nesting on the reverse of the American Eagle gold bullion coins.   The design has now appeared on the Gold Eagle coinage for a full quarter-century – and that’s a source of enormous pride to Miley Tucker-Frost, the talented sculptor who fashioned the now-familiar artwork back in the early 1980s.    “Having my design on the nation’s gold coinage has been a tremendous honor,” says the artist, whose name was Miley Busiek at the time the American Eagle bullion coins first appeared in late 1986.

                The Gold Eagles pair her design with Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ magnificent portrait of Liberty from the obverse of the stunning Saint-Gaudens double eagle (or $20 gold piece) of 1907-1933. Tucker-Frost takes special pride in this serendipitous pairing.    “I am thrilled that they did that,” she exclaims. “I just consider it an incredible honor to be on the other side of a coin that carries such a beautiful design.”

 The Family of Eagles’ appearance on the gold American Eagles culminated a six-year journey for the artist, who came up with the concept after watching Ronald Reagan’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1980.   “The theme of his speech that night,” she remembers, “was ‘Together, a new beginning.’ He was encouraging Americans to be thankful for what we have in this country and to act upon that feeling. He was encouraging private-sector initiatives – a willingness to reach out and care about each other and pull together.   “I didn’t think that anyone had ever depicted our national symbol, the American bald eagle, except as a single heraldic eagle. I liked the idea of thinking of America as a caring family, so I put together a sketch showing not just one eagle, but a whole family.”

           After seeing the design, the Republican National Committee asked her to create a small sculpture based on this theme as a souvenir for Reagan’s first inaugural. The president liked it, too: He chose copies of the mini-sculpture as gifts not only for inaugural guests but also for the former U.S. hostages whose return home from Iran, after 444 days of captivity, coincided with his inauguration. He presented one example to each of the 52 members of that group.   Soon after that, the artist saw an item in The Wall Street Journal reporting on efforts to obtain approval in Congress for a new U.S. gold bullion coin.

 “I happened to see that article during an airplane flight,” she said, “and, as an artist, it triggered an idea. I thought to myself, ‘There’s an opportunity.’ There couldn’t be a more dignified, more positive opportunity for America to subtly state what we stand for in our country than on a gold bullion coin – a coin that would be sold all over the world.”     She got in touch with Treasury officials and offered her design for use on any such coin. They advised her that congressional authorization would be needed not only for the coin but also for the design.    At that point, she began a one-woman campaign to gain consideration for her concept. She had connections in Washington and had been there on occasion, but she started her campaign back home in Dallas, where she set about getting endorsements from key civic leaders.

 “I showed them the design,” she says, “and told them how I felt – that this was an incredible opportunity for us to really honor what makes America great, and that’s our people.   “I spoke with the mayor, the Democratic county chairman, the Republican county chairman, the Young Democrats, the Young  Republicans, the AFL-CIO and every religious organization in our city –  and not one single person turned me down.”

 Among the supporters she lined up was Tom Landry, longtime coach of the Dallas Cowboys, who was a family friend. He, in turn, recruited Joe Gibbs, coach of the rival Washington Redskins, to contact members of Congress with whom he was acquainted.

 After obtaining letters supporting her idea, Busiek went to a copying machine, cranked out dozens of duplicates and put together information packets. With these in hand, she traveled to Washington to continue her campaign in the halls of Congress.

 Progress was slow at first. As time went by, however, her patience, persistence and passion for her cause began to pay dividends. She called on congressional staffs, lobbied their bosses directly when she could and testified at hearings when coinage legislation was discussed – and little by little, she picked up important support.   “It’s a good thing that my sculpting career is successful,” she says, “because there were a lot of phone calls and a lot of trips to Washington. But every single one of them was important and necessary, because there were so many pivotal times.”

 The big breakthrough came in 1985, when simmering opposition to South Africa’s racial policies reached the boiling point and President Reagan – pressed by Congress – imposed a series of sanctions. One was a ban on further importation of the Krugerrand, South Africa’s popular one-ounce bullion gold coin. The Krugerrand’s fall from favor sparked legislation giving U.S. citizens a bullion coin of their own as a replacement. (A bullion coin is one whose value is tied directly to that of the metal it contains; this distinguishes it from a numismatic coin, which can have added premium value as a collectible.)

 The Senate passed the coinage legislation unanimously on Nov. 14, 1985 – just one day after South Africa had suspended production of Krugerrands. The House followed suit, also unanimously, on Dec. 2, and Reagan signed the bill on Dec. 17.  The legislation authorized the Treasury to strike four legal-tender gold coins in sizes of one ounce, ½ ounce, ¼ ounce and 1/10 ounce. These corresponded exactly to the sizes already available for the Krugerrand. Each was assigned a face value. And while the denominations were (and are) far smaller than the value of the gold that the coins contain, their presence serves to underscore the fact that these are coins and not medals. The face values are $50 for the one-ounce coin, $25 for the ½-ounce, $10 for the ¼-ounce and $5 for the 1/10-ounce.

 Congress stipulated that the Family of Eagles design should appear on the reverse of the one-ounce coin. The Treasury wasn’t required to use it on the three fractional coins, but chose to do so anyway – and that decision gratified the artist.   “That was really overwhelming to me,” she remembers. “It’s really an incredible honor – and they didn’t have to do it. It was very, very nice of them.”

 The bill that authorized the coins specified that the reverse design must show a male eagle “carrying an olive branch and flying above a nest containing a female eagle and hatchlings.” The bill didn’t mention Busiek by name, but its wording precisely described the design that she proposed – and her design was clearly the one that members of Congress had in mind.   Congress didn’t mandate a particular design for the coins’ obverse, except to say that the one-ounce coin should carry a “design symbolic of Liberty” on that side. Treasury officials subsequently decided to resurrect a classic coinage portrait by using a “slenderized” version of Lady Liberty’s likeness from the obverse of Saint-Gaudens’ majestic double eagle.

 Busiek was given a close-up look as Mint craftsmen worked to transform her basic design from a drawing into a three-dimensional model.   “The Mint staff did the actual engraving,” she said at the time, “but the Treasury and the Mint were gracious enough to let me have some input. I made several different trips to the Philadelphia Mint, and I’ll always treasure the time that I spent there.  I don’t think I’ll ever look at a coin again the same way I used to,” she declared. “I just had no idea what went into the production of our money.” 

                 Her dream was fulfilled on Sept. 8, 1986, when the very first one-ounce Gold Eagles were struck in special ceremonies at the U.S. Bullion Depository at West Point, New York. She and her sons Matthew and David – then 12 and 8, respectively – got to strike examples of the coin. And, she now recalls, it was “the thrill of a lifetime.”   Her sons’ classmates were among her most enthusiastic supporters during her successful campaign to secure a place on a coin for the Family of Eagles design. She showed her appreciation in a very tangible way after the dream became a golden reality.    “My older son’s class worked so hard to bring this about, writing letters and helping in other ways,” she relates, “ that when it graduated, I purchased a fractional gold American Eagle for everyone that participated.

                 “The whole thing was like a civics lesson to them. I would report to them regularly on the progress of the legislation, and they followed it religiously and were just so excited about it. So when they graduated, I gave each one of them a coin with a little note wishing them well for the future.”

 Through the years, she has purchased Gold Eagles on numerous occasions “purely as gifts.” But, she says, “I’ve never bought any to hold for investment or anything like that.”    At the same time, she’s aware – and fully approves – of the bullion coins’ role as investment vehicles.    “It’s gratifying,” she says, “to see that our statesmen made a wise decision in bringing back gold. It’s there today at a time when people need the sort of comfort it provides and need to have choices on ways to invest their money. It gives our country a balance that I don’t think we ever dreamed that we would need.”

 For her, the greatest comfort provided by Gold Eagles is not their investment value – although that is considerable – but the way they remind Americans every day of family values.   “The spirit behind this design was to honor our family and America,” she says, “and this is a time when people need to be encouraged and affirmed – particularly our young people, with so much uncertainty clouding the future. We need to have an optimistic vision of the future.    “I’m really thankful,” she adds, “that this is an ongoing design that won’t be changed periodically. There’s just a nice consistency behind the story it tells, and I’m especially happy about that.”

 The future coin designer got her start in art – and enjoyed her first success – while attending Beaumont High School in Beaumont, Texas, which is also my hometown and where we have a number of mutual friends.   “Beaumont,” she recalls, “was a small, wholesome East Texas town – and because of the conservative culture, it was an ideal place to be a teenager. It was while in high school there that I really began to appreciate how much I enjoyed art. The art teacher there encouraged me and said, ‘I really believe you have talent.’   “In my senior year, the art teacher encouraged me to enter a competition to design the yearbook cover. I thought that would be fun, so I jumped in – and I won. That turned out to be my first venture in taking a chance and doing something artistic.   “Beaumont High School was the place where I really came to realize that I could just step right out and enjoy doing art.”

 She’s largely self-taught.   “After high school,” she says, “I was an early childhood major and never took any formal art classes. I took one art class at an evening community school in Dallas while we were living there, but nothing beyond that.”   She taught herself well – for over the years, she has received a number of important sculptural commissions from government agencies, educational institutions and private clients. One of her favorites is a larger-than-life monument of a running wild mustang which occupies a place of honor on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The mustang is SMU’s mascot.

                 Though her Texas ties are strong, she has lived for the last 15 years in the Washington, D.C., area, where her present husband, Howard Frost, a doctor of political science, works for the federal government.   For the last several years, she has spent considerable time in Germany, helping to sculpt a monument she designed honoring the patriots whose peaceful demonstrations brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

                 A non-sculptural project close to her heart is “Welcome Home, U.S. Vets,” a one-stop interactive Web site for veterans – particularly disabled veterans – returning to civilian life after serving their country.  “This is aimed at all veterans,” she says, “but especially the ones that are coming back from service in combat zones. It’s based on private-sector investment putting money into start-up small businesses and refurbished houses and property. The veterans returning now are coming back to a poor economy, and they need jobs and houses. There’s a huge need for this, and filling that need is the purpose of this Web site.”

 Last year, Tucker-Frost had a chance to meet one of the Iranian hostages who received her original Family of Eagles replica from President Reagan in January 1981.  “I was so privileged to be there,” she declares. “I thanked him for all that he went through and did for us while he was being held captive. It was just a real pleasure to get to say hello and thank him in person. He told me how much the sculpture meant to him – and that’s one of the most gratifying things about this whole experience. 

“I get such satisfaction from knowing that my Family of Eagles is making people aware of their own family values as Americans, and that the coins have become an ongoing part of our culture.”   Despite the time and effort she has devoted to the gold American Eagle, she has never realized one cent’s worth of profit.  “This,” she says, “was a gift to my fellow-Americans.  “It’s really the most wonderful feeling,” she adds, “to be able to give a gift to your country. I just can’t tell you how great that makes me feel.”