Tuesday, March 31, 2015

President James A. Garfield

Garfield's mansion highlights life of short-lived president


President James A. Garfield’s death could have been a financial disaster for his wife and family, but because he was popular the public organized a fundraising drive that made his wife financially secure enough that she could add more rooms to the house, making it a 31-room mansion.

            James A. Garfield, who was assassinated shortly after his election in 1881 as our 20th president, might have had one of the best preparations to hold that office.

            The presidential museum in the visitor center at Mentor, Ohio, is small but has a select collection of personal items and several audio descriptions and life-size models related to the important events of his life. Before taking a guided tour of his home, we watched a movie with most of the narration taken from the diaries that he kept all of his life.

            Born in a log cabin, Garfield was 2 when his father died, leaving the family with a tough road ahead. Hating farm work, Garfield took a job leading mules that pulled boats on the Erie Canal. After he returned home with an illness, his mother, who believed he was destined for greatness, insisted that he take all the money available to her at the time — $17 — and enroll in college, where he did well.

            Garfield had a philosophy of not planning for a specific goal for his future but believed in working hard and watching for opportunities. He taught school, he preached, he became principal of a college and he was elected to the Ohio Senate. When the Civil War started, he volunteered to lead a company of Union troops that he had raised. With no formal training as a soldier, he managed to lead well enough to become a general.

            He would have continued, but Lincoln personally asked him to run for office in the U.S. House of Representatives because he felt Garfield would be more valuable to the nation in that role. He won and held that position for 17 years, part of the time as chairman as the appropriations committee from 1871 to 1875.

            During that time he established a permanent home for his family in Mentor, where he bought a farm with a house with nine rooms, to which he added 11 more.

            In 1880, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Before he could be active in that role, the Republican Party, in the face of a deadlocked nomination convention, chose him as its presidential candidate. He was the first candidate to actively campaign for that office; he did it from the front porch of his home in Mentor just outside of Cleveland. The visitors who wanted to hear him orate were brought to Mentor on special trains.

            Garfield was inaugurated in March of 1881, and on July 2 was shot in the back by Charles Guiteau, a fanatic who had been turned down for an appointed position for which he was not qualified. Garfield died after 80 miserable days. Our guide pointed out that one of the problems was poor medical practices; such was the custom then that his doctors probed for the bullet with unwashed fingers. Chester A. Arthur then became president.

            Garfield’s death could have been a financial disaster for his wife and family, but because he was popular the public organized a fundraising drive that made his wife financially secure enough that she could add more rooms to the house, making it a 31-room mansion.

            Additionally, she added special features such as a tower that furnished water pressure, a gas line and a special room for a presidential library — the first in the country. She also was able to support Garfield’s mother until her death as well as her own father.

            The mansion is now a National Historic Site.


Garfield's wife sits by his side after he was shot in the back by a fanatic.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Eleanor Roosevelt's Val Kill

Eleanor Roosevelt's Val-Kill paints a portrait of a first lady


National Park Service/Courtesy

Eleanor Roosevelt built Val-Kill as a factory and school to train unemployed farm workers and later used it as an office and retreat for herself and her secretary

When we teach our OSHER Lifelong Learning course on the most influential people of the 20th century, we highlight Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Harry S. Truman once called the “First Lady of the World.” So, we eagerly looked forward to visiting Val-Kill, the home she created for herself on the grounds of Hyde Park, N.Y.

            After a 15-minute film focusing on her spoken or written words, a National Park Service ranger enthusiastically provided details about her life as we toured her home and the surrounding grounds.

            Roosevelt had a miserable childhood. Her father, a brother of President Theodore Roosevelt, was an alcoholic whom she loved. Her mother thought she was too homely to attract a worthy husband and did nothing to build her self-esteem. Both parents were dead by the time she was 10, and a rather rigid, emotionally cold grandmother took over her care.

            At 15, Roosevelt was rescued by being sent to the Allenswood School in England, where the head mistress, Marie Souvestre, saw her potential and encouraged her compassion for the oppressed, a quality for which she later became recognized.

            After returning to New York, Roosevelt worked with poor immigrants and introduced her distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt to the conditions of the “common people.” Because of his upper-class upbringing, he was surprised by what he saw.

            After their marriage, they lived with his mother, Sara, under conditions that gave Eleanor Roosevelt little to say about the management of the household and social activities. But after Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio, she took over the responsibility of keeping his potential career alive. After discovering his affair, she cut off physical relations with him but continued to be his eyes and ears to the world. She often pushed him to do more for civil rights. His problem was that if he did too much, he would lose the Southern votes he needed to keep the presidency. He often used her controversial comments as a way to see how far he could go with the public. If serious negative reactions were aroused, he would shrug his shoulders and say, “That’s my misses’ view.”

            With two of her closest friends, Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, Eleanor built Val-Kill as a factory and school to train unemployed farm workers to make furniture, pewter pieces and weavings.

            When the factory closed in 1938, Eleanor turned the building into an office and retreat for herself and her secretary. It became a place of rest and respite after her whirlwind trips around the country and the world. She preferred it to the Hyde Park home because she was free of Sara Roosevelt’s direction. After Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, Val-Kill became Eleanor Roosevelt’s permanent home. Her two friends continued to live in the adjoining Stone House until 1947.

            Roosevelt met with friends and famous people at Val-Kill. Our guide indicated Roosevelt did not favor Jack Kennedy, who visited her at Val-Kill, because he thought like a politician and was not willing to do much about supporting civil rights because it might lose him votes. The country was not ready to wholeheartedly support some of her social innovations, especially in race relations.

            Our guide also pointed out that she didn’t cook. She enjoyed entertaining and frequently spontaneously invited extra guests, leaving the cooks short of food at times. The problem was solved after they finally told her they would prepare meals for 20, and if that turned out to be too much food, she could get used to eating leftovers.

            From the 1930s until she died in 1962, she continued to write a daily column, “My Day.” She also hosted a television talk show and continued to write books. President Truman appointed her as a representative to the United Nations General Assembly, where she chaired the committee that wrote the Declaration of Human Rights.

            The visit to Val-Kill affirmed our belief that Eleanor Roosevelt was truly one of the great influences of the 20th century.