The man believed to be the last living carver of Mount Rushmore has died.
Donald “Nick” Clifford was one of nearly 400 men and women who worked on the iconic American monument. He died on Saturday at a hospice in Rapid City, S.D., at the age of 98, his wife told NPR.
Clifford, who celebrated his last birthday in July, was immensely proud of his work on the mountainside as a teenager.
“I feel like Mount Rushmore was the greatest thing with which I was ever involved,” he told the Rapid City Journal. “It tells a story that will never go away — the story of how America was made and the men who helped make it what it is today.”
The 60-foot bust memorial was the vision of sculptor Gutzon Borglum and took 14 years to complete. From 1927 to 1941 men and women worked to blast and carve the faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln into the South Dakota mountain.
“The work was hard, the hours long, the pay low, and periods of employment uncertain,” the National Park Service explains, adding that despite the dangerous conditions there were no fatalities during the carving work.
Clifford worked there from 1938 to 1940, earning 55 cents an hour.
According to Carolyn, Clifford’s wife of 45 years, he had spent much of his young life waiting to work at the site. “You couldn’t work there until you were 17 years old, so Nick went to work at the Etta mine when he was 15. But as soon as he turned 17, he went to work on Mount Rushmore,” she said.
He was just 6 years old when work began on the bust of Washington, so by the time Clifford started as a driller, only Lincoln and Roosevelt remained to be sculpted.
“I knew how to run a jackhammer and that was the main requirement,” Clifford wrote in his book, Mount Rushmore Q&A.
“When I started drilling Lincoln, Borglum [Gutzon Borglum’s son and right-hand man] told me where to drill and how to do it,” he said.
After working on the famous faces, Clifford joined the 8th Air Force, fighting in World War II. He eventually returned to live in Keystone in the 1970s. But it wasn’t until his later years that he became known as something of a local celebrity.
While the men who worked on the mountainside eventually drifted apart, pursuing other work, growing their families and realizing new dreams, many often returned to Keystone. When that happened and Clifford ran into old friends, “they would always, eventually, get to talking about the old days,” Carolyn said.
“But, you know, that of course stopped happening,” she added.
In an interview with KOTA TV on his 98th birthday, Clifford lamented the loss of his old colleagues. “They’re all gone now. I’m the last one,” he said.
Since 2004, Clifford and his wife could be found selling copies of his self-published book at the memorial’s gift shop.
“He could be shy at times but he loved doing that. He loved visiting with people and answering their questions,” his wife said.
Clifford was working at the gift shop the morning of Nov. 8 when he told his wife he was feeling unwell. She took him to the emergency room and he spent the last few weeks of his life in and out of the hospital.
“He wasn’t sick and he didn’t have a disease, but at that age, when you don’t get out of bed and move around, you become weak,” she said.
Clifford is survived by three children from a previous marriage, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.