Charles C. Dent’s life story and the completion of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Horse That Never Was” – a passion Dent carried for the final 17 years of his life – are testaments to his resolve and to his courage to think boldly.
Born in 1917 as the second of a foundry owner’s eight children in Allentown, Pa., Charlie developed two of his deepest passions – a passion for art and a passion for flight – and he would not be denied in pursuing them. When he wanted to take flying lessons, he traded art work as payment. Charlie’s determination took him to prestigious Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., and then to United Airlines, where he would fly DC-3 and Boeing 747 planes.
Dent’s career would allow him to collect artwork from around the world. It also allowed him to him to meet lifelong friend Richard Munger, his copilot. During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Dent and Munger held several philosophical discussions about what responsibilities individuals and corporations have in maintaining world peace.
The outcome of these discussions was one of Charles C. Dent’s boldest ideas – the founding of an organization called UN WE BELIEVE, dedicated to promoting the principles of the United Nations Charter. Dent bankrolled the new organization with a bonus he received for being the first commercial pilot to belly-land an airliner on a foamed runway.
UN WE BELIEVE would become known as the Business Council for the United Nations. It remains active today, promoting world peace and serving as a catalyst for action, understanding, and innovative business opportunities between member companies and the UN.
Dent would continue flying for United Airlines throughout the 1960s and most of the 1970s. He would continue to sculpt and collect art, focusing on Renaissance bronzes and marbles. He worked with Roger Enloe, UN WE BELIEVE President and his brother-in-law, to help reunite President Dwight D. Eisenhower and President Harry S. Truman in for a 1966 observance of the anniversary of D-Day.
Dent’s next bold idea came in 1972, when he created an international anti-hijacking program, called T+. Its purpose was to seek world-wide ratification of outstanding anti-hijacking treaties. Dent chartered a special 747 flight from New York to Montreal that would become the first airborne meeting of the UN General Assembly. The meeting’s purpose was for ambassadors to meet airline personnel who had survived hijackings. One attendee was American UN Ambassador George H.W. Bush, who eventually would become the 41st President of the United States. This meeting was credited for the ratification of anti-hijacking treaties by several nations.
Upon retiring from United Airlines in 1977 after 36 years of service, Dent bought a farmhouse near his hometown of Allentown, Pa. It would not take long, however, for his next bold idea to become his all-consuming passion.
A lifelong fan of Leonardo da Vinci, Dent opened an issue of National Geographic magazine in 1978 and read its cover story on Leonardo’s genius. A sidebar piece profiled Leonardo’s labor to build the colossal horse monument commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Italy, Lodovico Sforza, in honor of the Duke’s father, Francesco.
Dent decided upon reading this article that The Horse should be created as an expression of gratitude for Leonardo and the Renaissance. He also decided that The Horse should be given to the Italian people as a gesture of international goodwill and peace.
Dent met with top Renaissance scholars – including Sir John Pope-Hennessey, Professor Frederick Hartt, and Dr. Carlo Pedretti – to determine if the project would be feasible. When every expert suggested that it was feasible, Dent assembled data and photos and officially set out on his mission.
He enlisted leading Renaissance scholars to form an Advisory Council in 1980, as suggested by the Mayor of Milan. He also began construction the following year on The Dome Studio on his farm to house offices and the working model of The Horse.
While building the Dome Studio and sculpting more than 25 preliminary wax and clay studies of The Horse, Dent helped organize a 1981 reunion of all surviving World War I flying aces in Paris on Armistice Day and continued work on his private art collection. That collection built with passion throughout Dent’s adult life, took on another meaning as he sold several pieces to raise project money – or, as Dent himself called it, “hay for The Horse.”
As the roster of project supporters grew, Dent incorporated Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse, Inc. (LDVHI) in 1982 as a nonprofit organization. This formation legitimized the faith of donors in Dent’s ability to complete the project.
LDVHI’s project to build The Horse proceeded slowly through the late 1980’s as The Dome Studio was completed. Creation of an eight-foot clay model began in 1988 with the help of numerous sculptors and advisors. While the process was long, Charles Dent remained steadfast in his belief that problems that seem insurmountable be solved when an idea has an intrinsic value.
In a Shakespearean twist of irony, Charles C. Dent passed away on Dec. 25, 1994, shortly after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Just like Leonardo, he had worked for 17 years without finishing The Horse.
As Leonardo’s bold thinking inspired Charlie Dent, however, Charlie Dent’s bold thinking inspired LDVHI to carry on with Charlie’s nephew Peter C. Dent helping to take the reins.
With the help of countless donors and the talents of sculptor Nina Akamu and the Talix Art Foundry in Beacon, N.Y., The Horse took stride at a grand unveiling in Milan on Sept. 10, 1999, 500 years to the reported day that Leonardo’s clay model of The Horse had been destroyed by French troops.
Conceived five centuries before as a monument to the father of an Italian Duke, The Horse has become international tribute to inspiration, courage, determination, curiosity, creativity, and imagination.