Athens, Ga. – A historic sundial face that disappeared from the University of Georgia campus 37 years ago will be replaced by an ornate hand-crafted sundial that honors the president of the graduating class that donated the original sundial a century ago.
Descendants of J. Howard Neisler, president of UGA’s Class of 1908, commissioned one of the world’s few sundial designers to make the new face, which will sit on a marble pedestal located on one of the most historic spots on the UGA campus.
Family members are making the gift as a tribute to Neisler who, as class president, was designated to oversee the erection of the first sundial as a memorial to the class. After graduation, and before the sundial was delivered, Neisler and a friend hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail. When Neisler returned to Athens, the sundial had arrived and he saw to its installation.
The sundial was placed on a pedestal in front of the UGA Chapel, on the spot where the famed Toombs Oak had stood. Neisler predicted in a report to his classmates the following year that it “will stay there for all time, I think.”
It did remain for 63 years, until 1971, when it disappeared-“missing, possibly stolen,” according to a UGA police report. Since then the pedestal has been bare.
Family members decided the centennial year of the original installation would be a good time to replace the face. They wanted the new sundial to be made of brass, to be scientifically accurate and to mimic, as far as possible, the original face. The task turned out to be harder than they expected.
Brass sundials require artistry and craftsmanship, and there are few people who design and create them, according to Neisler’s grandson, John Neisler Whatley of Cary, N.C., who led the search for someone to make the replacement. The family eventually located Tony Moss in the town of Bedlington, England, just outside of Newcastle.
With only a faded black-and-white photograph of the original sundial as a guide, Moss created a face similar in size and appearance to the original but much richer in detail.
Made of solid brass and weighing about 15 pounds, the circular face is engraved with directional orientations, large Roman numerals, the months of the year and intricately etched designs. The gnomon-the triangular device in the center of the face that projects a shadow that indicates the time-is a close replica of the original.
The new face also incorporates modern scientific knowledge that makes it almost as accurate as a clock for telling time.
Whatley, an American Airlines pilot, recently flew to England to visit with Moss and bring the sundial to America. Moss personalized the sundial in several ways, including engraving a note that it is a replacement for the original presented by the Class of ‘08. He also told Whatley that it is the last sundial he will produce.
The family will present the sundial to the university in a ceremony planned for August.
Others involved in the gift include Whatley’s mother, Ann Whatley of Dunwoody, who is Neisler’s daughter; her sister, Frances Persons of Atlanta; Ann Whatley’s three daughters (John Whatley’s sisters) Laura Whatley Cole of Kennesaw; Judy Whatley Seitz of Birmingham, Ala.; Fran Whatley Hollifield of Roswell; and Frances Persons’ two sons, Rob Persons and Steve Persons, both of Atlanta.
Ann Whatley graduated from UGA in 1947; Cole, Seitz and Hollifield attended UGA but transferred to other schools. John Whatley graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. Steve Persons’ two sons are UGA graduates.
The pedestal that will hold the face is on a spot deeply rooted in UGA lore-the location of the Toombs Oak, named for Robert Toombs, a Civil War general and U.S. senator from Georgia.
Toombs was a UGA student who was expelled in 1824 for misbehavior. According to a long-standing legend, he returned to campus when his class graduated and disrupted the ceremony by delivering his own commencement speech beneath a large oak tree in front of the Chapel. The tree became known as the Toombs Oak.
Lightning knocked the top out of the tree in 1884 but the trunk remained until 1908 when the decayed stump collapsed. Neisler’s class placed the pedestal and sundial where the tree had stood.
According to John Whatley, the new sundial face was designed for the exact longitude and latitude of this spot and has a “longitudinal correction” to account for the location of Athens in the westernmost portion of the Eastern Time Zone. The face also has a ring with calendar markings that is actually a chart that corrects for the earth’s “wobble” throughout the year, a phenomenon known as The Equation of Time.
These features make the sundial accurate to almost within a minute of a clock. Moss engraved instructions around the rim of the sundial for using it to tell time.
Laura Whatley Cole remembers seeing the original sundial when she came to UGA football games with her grandfather, who died in 1969, three years before the sundial went missing. She learned of its disappearance years later when her son took a campus tour.
“My grandfather would nonchalantly point it out, but he was humble about it,” Cole said. “He was dear friends with his classmates all his life and I know the sundial was important to him. I think he would be proud that his grandchildren and other family members are making this gift a hundred years later in his honor.”
Ann Whatley and Frances Persons said their father, who returned to his hometown of Reynolds and enjoyed a successful career in farming and business, was “an humble, godly man who was highly respected by his classmates and community.” They said Neisler and class members maintained a close bond and for years met once each fall in Athens for lunch and a Georgia football game.