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Volunteer Robert Carpenter is the man beneath the James Scott Memorial Fountain, literally, that keeps the Belle Isle landmark flowing. The Detroit News

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“I’m not sure if I’m excited or scared,” jokes Robert Carpenter, DTE Energy employee and unofficial guardian of the Belle Isle James Scott Memorial Fountain as it becomes the centerpiece for this weekend’s Detroit Grand Prix Winners Circle celebration. 

Completed in 1925, the mountain of marble was a memorial to real estate investor and socialite James Scott, who, in his will, left money for the fountain to the city of Detroit, with the caveat that it must include a life-size statue of himself.   Despite protests, the fountain was eventually built along with a statue of Scott seated off to the side, overlooking the fountain, with Detroit in the background.

In 2007, Robert Carpenter got involved in the Grand Prix and was asked by Roger Penske to clean up the fountain’s lower cascades.  Carpenter, an electrical engineer, recalls, “When I heard ‘clean it up,’ I thought ‘fix it up,’” so that’s what Carpenter did, and has been doing every spring since -- cleaning tanks, fixing pipes and getting the fountain ready for its summer performance.

But the spouting lions and turtles that you see above ground are only half the story of the Scott Fountain.  Below is a dark, damp and domed cavern of cast iron pipes, huge gears, valves, pumps and ancient technology that Carpenter has had to decipher and repair through the years to keep the water flowing.

Carpenter entered the underground control room for the first time in 2007. “Most of the pipes were a complete confusion to me.  There were absolutely no prints or drawings,” he said. The workers knew how to turn the water on and off, but not much more.

So, Carpenter learned his way around the 1925 technology by trial and error. “Just last year, there was a valve that we finally learned how it worked and what it is used for.”

Carpenter also has learned that not everything has to be fixed.  He points to the valves that control the amount of spray from the popular turtle spouts in the lower fountain bowl.  “One day I was fiddling with them and someone asked me, why are you doing that, why are you adjusting it?  As an electrical engineer, I like things that are more in line and I was adjusting them because one turtle was high, one turtle was low.  I said I want them all nice and even.  The woman looked at me and said no, they all have their own personality.” 

Throwing his hands up, Carpenter goes on, “So then heck with it, I won’t adjust anything anymore, so we only do minor adjustments now.”

Carpenter’s volunteer efforts are an obvious benefit to the city of Detroit and its residents, and he does reap a reward, if not a salary.  Standing in a small puddle in the underground control room beneath the magnificent fountain, he remembers the reaction of one Belle Isle visitor in particular.

 “There was an older gentleman on the rail, looking at it, tears running down his eyes, and I asked if he was okay; he seemed a little distraught.  He said he had thought he would never see the fountain running again before he died.

“I thought, I guess I did something pretty good here.” 

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DETROIT GRAND PRIX

When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Belle Isle

IndyCar: Dual IndyCar races on Saturday and Sunday, 3:30 p.m.; each day, 70 laps each

Tickets: DetroitGP.com

Support races

Saturday — TransAm Challenge Race, 8:45 a.m.; Super Truck Series Race 1, 10:05 a.m.; IMSA SportsCar Championship, 12:30 p.m.

Sunday — TransAm Dash Race, 11:45 a.m.; Super Truck Series Race 2, 2:05 p.m.

 

 

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