"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Those are the words of poet Emma Lazarus describing the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty has been the symbol of a new life in a new world for millions of immigrants.
Ovidiu Colea will never forget the first time he saw her.
"I saw [her] from the sky," said Colea. "That was the first thing that I saw. My nose was stick on the window."
The year was 1978 and 38-year-old Colea was watching Lady Liberty from the window of his first plane ride. This was a trip decades in the making.
"I think I was 10 years [old] when I was dreaming of the Statue of Liberty," said Colea.
He first learned about her listening to the Voice of America with his father.
"And I asked my father, 'What is the Statue of Liberty?'" remembered Colea. "I never believe that I be the one to do the Statue of Liberty."
By "do" he means make, because for the past 30 plus years, except for a brief gig as a cab driver, Ovidiu has been manufacturing those miniature replicas of the Statue of Liberty that you see in souvenir shops all over New York. He claims to be the last New Yorker to manufacture the statue in the city. From the outside his Colbar Art, Inc. isn't much to look at — a non-descript building in the shadow of the Long Island Expressway on the edge of industrial Queens. But the inside of Colea's factory is like Santa's workshop meets the Smithsonian. A half dozen workers cast mold after mold of miniature green ladies.
"I'm supplying the entire world with liberty," said Colea.
Okay, he's maybe not supplying the entire world with liberty, but more than a decade ago he claims he produced over 800,000 replicas a year. Today, his wife, a stern Romanian woman who runs the front office and the books, says it's more like 20,000 or so. His biggest competitor? You guessed it, China.
The factory itself is strewn with bits and pieces of Americana: tiny Empire State buildings, extra spires from the Chrysler building, busts of Robert Kennedy and Eisenhower, the disembodied leg of Abraham Lincoln. Making things is in Ovidiu Colea's DNA.
"My mother was good on that, she got the golden hand," said Colea. "I took whatever I could from her."
Colea wanted to become an architect — a dream that proved to be impossible coming from a small village in communist Romania. So when he turned 18, he decided to leave the country. He didn't tell anyone about his decision, but secretly planned his route to the Danube river that marked the Romanian border with Yugoslavia.
"I was planning to cross the border by swimming under the river and going to Yugoslavia," said Colea. But he didn't make it to the river; he was caught at the border by Romanian guards.
"It was a difficult border to cross, some were lucky to pass and some didn't," said Colea. "I was the one who didn't and I paid the price for that."
That price was five years in a hard labor camp. Colea doesn't like to talk about that time in his life.
"I don't like people to say, 'Ah, poor guy,'" said Colea.
All he will say is that, throughout five years of hard labor, he remained resolute. He was bound and determined to see the Statue of Liberty in real life.
After being freed from the labor camp, he applied for a visa to come to the US. And he applied again. For 20 years, he applied, until 1978, when he finally got approved for a visa and found himself on that plane and then in New York working at a casting factory. He eventually saved up enough money to buy that factory, where he has made it a point to hire immigrants like himself.
At 74 years old, Colea has started thinking about retiring and the future of his business and his employees.
"I have to leave this place for the new generation," he said.
That new generation is his son, Ed Colea. The younger Colea grew up coming to the factory on weekends. As a kid, he remembers watching his father cast models of Lady Liberty and the World Trade Center. His fondest memory is when his father cast a life-size sculpture of a bear that doubled as a fish tank for the second floor of the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan. That's right, an enormous bear fishtank.
"They had to get a crane to put it through the wall," remembered Colea.
Lately he's been coming to the factory to learn the business. As casting has become increasingly more technical, his father has leaned on his son's computer expertise. But Ed Colea admits, he's got an enormous torch to carry.
"I look at what my dad does and he helped a lot of people," said Colea. "A lot of people come from different countries looking for work and my dad helped give them a job, helped them take care of their families. They want to live the American dream. I think everyone wants to live the American dream. I still want to live the American dream."
He says this gesturing to the boxes of miniature Lady Liberties.
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