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Ziolkowski Fights Cancer & Reflects On Crazy Horse Legacy

April 10, 2014, 9:58 PM by Ben Dunsmoor

Ziolkowski Fights Cancer & Reflects On Crazy Horse Legacy

For more than 30 years she has been the face behind the face.

Ruth Ziolkowski has led operations at the Crazy Horse Memorial since 1982, but now the 87-year-old says she only has a short time to live as she battles terminal cancer.

For nearly 67 years Ziolkowski has been living out her dream in South Dakota's Black Hills.

"You know I don't have a job I have a way of life and I've had it ever since I got here when I was 20 years of age," Ziolkowski said in a phone interview from a hospital in the Black Hills.

Ziolkowski traveled to the Black Hills in 1947 from West Hartford, Connecticut to help artist Korczak Ziolkowski in his quest to carve a mountain. Korczak would become Ruth's husband and the mountain would soon become the Crazy Horse Memorial. A project that began in 1948 one year after Ziolkowski arrived in South Dakota.

"That was quite a day so many years ago," Ziolkowski recalls.

The mission was to carve a mountain to honor American Indians at the invitation of Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear. A project Korczak worked on for 36 years until he died in 1982. That's when Ruth took over operations. She has overseen the project for more than 30 years.

"(I’ve seen) the buildings there go from a tent when Korczak got here to a complex we have where millions of people visit every year," Ziolkowski said.

Now, Ruth Ziolkowski's own life is coming to an end. She is 87 years old and battling terminal cancer that has been resistant to treatment.

"The doctors don't give me a very long time to live but you know I'm blessed. I've had a wonderful life. I'm almost 88 years of age and I'm going to fight every way I can for every day I can get," Ziolkowski said.

Ziolkowski says it’s been incredible to see how the mountain has been transformed over the years and how the Crazy Horse Memorial has fulfilled Korczak's mission to make sure it’s more than just a sculpture. The site is home to a Native American museum and recently the Indian University of North America opened at the memorial where students can take college-level classes in the summer while working as interns at Crazy Horse.

"And of the students in the first four years 67 percent of them are still in college or school and they're successful," Ziolkowski said.

Ziolkowski says she's also proud of the progress made on the sculpture itself since Korczak has passed away. She believes the accomplishments on her watch continue to fulfill his dream.

"I think the memorial is proof that Korczak was right. He thoroughly believed and he taught all of us that nothing is impossible. You can do absolutely anything in this world you want to do if you're willing to work hard enough and to pay the price," Ziolkowski said.

Carrying on Korczak's dream has fulfilled Ruth's dream as well. It’s a dream that Ruth says will continue after she passes away.

"The mountain does not depend on one person, neither does the entire project. When Korczak passed away in 1982 it fell to me to continue the job and work with the family and the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. When I pass on the same thing is true it will continue on. It is not based on one person's ability," Ziolkowski said.

Ziolkowski hopes the millions of visitors who stop at Crazy Horse after she is gone are inspired to accomplish their dreams.

"Your life is your own. You make it what it is and you can do exactly what you want to do. Dreams really do come true," Ziolkowski said.

Even if they are still nearly 70 years in the making.

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