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In 2015 the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International airport accommodated 101,491,106 passengers –– an average of 278,058 passengers a day. That’s just in one year. Deborah Whitehouse’s 70-foot-wide mural “The Spirit of Atlanta” was on display in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for 15 years. During that time innumerable passengers making their way up to baggage claim had the opportunity to gaze on the jubilant face of an 11-year-old Lori Cord.
It was Cord’s birthday when Deborah Whitehouse photographed her at Centennial Olympic Park. Now, with the removal of Whitehouse’s iconic commemoration of the park created for the Olympic games, we caught up with Cord to talk to her about the experience of being on semi-permanent display at one of the world’s busiest airports.
ArtsATL: How old were you when you posed for “The Spirit of Atlanta”? Where were you in the mural?
Lori Cord: It was my 11th birthday. I was on the left-hand side when you come up the elevator, I looked like I was the little girl holding down the exit sign . . . I think I was the tallest person in the mural.
ArtsATL: Do you remember speaking with photographer Deborah Whitehouse? Do you remember when she took the photo?
Cord: I do, I had just seen the Olympic Park from the rotating restaurant in the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel and my parents said we could go down there, so we walked to the park and my brother and I started playing in the water. A woman was taking pictures. She eventually came up to us and asked if our parents were around, so we took her to my mom and dad. She told them who she was and why she was there and I guess they agreed that she could take pictures of us playing in the water, I don’t remember the adult stuff. I think I just wanted to keep playing.
ArtsATL: Do you remember anything about Whitehouse’s process? Did you meet any of the other children or pose separately?
Cord: I wish I could say that I made friends when I was playing in the park that day, but I honestly don’t even remember my brother being there. It was just me on my 11th birthday playing in a magical fountain. When The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did the “Where Are They Now?” article I heard it was hard to even track people down and that the couple in the middle hugging weren’t together anymore . . . which must be awkward [for them].
ArtsATL: Can you tell us a little bit about what you do now and have been up to since?
Cord: I was in the Air Force for about three years before medically retiring for Guillain-Barré Syndrome. I’ve moved from Delaware to Georgia to Colorado since then — my brother, sister-in-law and niece are here. I am going to the University of Colorado Denver now and working in the Veteran Student Services.
ArtsATL: What are your thoughts on Atlanta now?
Cord: I recently visited home for my Grandma’s 80th birthday, it was like I was able to breathe again. I love Atlanta, it’s familiar. When I come home, passing by Atlanta is like . . . feeling that even though everything in my life constantly changes, that familiar view of Atlanta from 75/85 will always be the same. Except for this new road that is being built . . . that is kind of weird.
ArtsATL: Was it strange having this image of you still on display for nearly two decades?
Cord: Oh my gosh, anytime my mom would meet any of my friends or coworkers or bosses, she would start the conversation with, “Did you know that Lori’s picture is in the Atlanta airport?” and show me off to people that I already knew. It was so embarrassing, but I love her for being so proud of me. Anyone that knew me would immediately feel at home because I was there . . . holding the exit sign down. I liked that.
ArtsATL: Were you ever recognized?
Cord: It was sweet to have any of my friends, family or . . . anyone I knew who knew about the mural text me a picture of them in front of it, taking a picture of me as they went up the escalators or letting me know that they saw me, missed me and tried to take a picture but were yelled at by security.
No one ever saw me and said, “Hey, there’s this little girl in the mural in Atlanta!” or “Is that you?” I’ve changed a lot over the years, so if someone did say that, I would be a bit cautious of how they knew.
ArtsATL: How do you feel about the mural coming down?
Cord: Everything changes. I think we did our part. For the almost 15 years that the mural was up, by showing how friendly and inviting the South — or at least, Georgia — can be. I know I’m going to get some messages from my friends who don’t know it went down, but that’s okay.
What I would be upset about is if I went home and someone decided to take Centennial Olympic Park away. I would like to bring my niece there someday and tell her about my 11th birthday in the magical fountain which turned me into a giant in the airport.
ArtsATL: What do you think The Spirit of Atlanta grew to symbolize and stand for, for the innumerable travelers and Atlantans who stood beneath it on the escalator for all of those years?
Cord: I’m not sure what it would mean to them, but I know I’ve been to many other airports and have never seen anything like it before. I like that Atlanta was willing to have real Atlantans welcome their guests to the city — not the mayor or governor or someone who they may not meet in the street, but they would see us, we are the “real” people of Atlanta, you know?
I would hope, though, that whoever saw it, if they were coming home, would feel like I feel when coming home — a nice deep breath of fresh, humid air (laughs).