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The Dansville Online
  • Tom O'Mara: President’s Day and New York history

  • Every now and then I’ll receive a letter from a student asking me to name my favorite U.S. president. What an assignment.

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  • Every now and then I’ll receive a letter from a student asking me to name my favorite U.S. president. What an assignment. Trust me, it’s no easy task to choose just one from the long and distinguished (and, yes, sometimes not so distinguished) list of American presidents. But when a fifth-grader reaches out for your help on a social studies project and asks you to please single out one president who’s better than all the rest, well, you just do your best to whittle the list down to one.
    With that in mind, I’ll take the opportunity on this President’s Day week to reflect on the interesting and prominent place that New York state holds in the history of the American presidency.
    New York state can lay claim in some way to at least seven former presidents: Martin Van Buren (the 8th U.S. President) was elected in 1836 after having served as Andrew Jackson’s vice president. Millard Fillmore (13th) was also a vice president who became president in 1850 upon the death of Zachary Taylor. Ulysses S. Grant (18th), a West Point graduate who died at Mt. McGregor, north of Albany (where the Grant Cottage is now a State Historic Site), was mourned at the Capitol and buried in New York City. Chester Alan Arthur (21st) was a third vice president who rose to the highest office following James Garfield’s assassination in 1881. Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th) was elected president for the first time in 1884 and then elected again in 1892, becoming the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. Theodore Roosevelt (26th) was elected vice president in 1900 and assumed the presidency a year later following the assassination of William McKinley, then was reelected in 1904. And Franklin Delano Roosevelt (32nd) was elected four times as president beginning in 1932.
    Of the above, Van Buren, Cleveland, and both Roosevelts served as governor of New York. In fact, across the centuries as a state, we’ve also had our share of vice presidents and we’ve taken equal pride in Supreme Court chief justices (including John Jay, one of  the nation’s Founding Fathers and the very first chief justice) and associate justices, historically famous and influential members of Congress, prominent cabinet members, winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and on and on throughout the worlds of government and politics, the arts and entertainment, sports, medicine and so much more. You name it and it’s likely that a New Yorker has played a part in it somewhere along the way.
    So it’s a proud past and for those of us fortunate enough to serve at the Capitol, or even if you’ve just had the opportunity to visit Albany. You can’t help but be struck by the aura of this history when you walk the halls, sit in a historic meeting room, or just pass by one of the many monuments and memorials dotting the expanse of the Empire State Plaza — like the bronze cast of George Washington in the West Capitol Park, which was unveiled on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1932 (read more about the Empire State Plaza’s memorials at the state Office of General Services website, www.ogs.ny.gov/ESP/CT/Memorials/Default.asp). And even if you’ve never had the occasion or the opportunity to set foot in Albany, plenty of this history is at your fingertips today online.
    Page 2 of 2 - One of the most recent and prominent online additions is the new virtual “Hall of Governors” unveiled by the Cuomo administration earlier this year (hallofgovernors.ny.gov/). The site opens with these words, “For more than 100 years, our state’s history has been shaped in this building, and many great leaders have walked these hallways as they worked for the people of New York.”
    I started this President’s Day column with the question I sometimes get asked from area students, “Who’s your favorite U.S. president?” So I guess it’s only fair to close with an answer.
    Hints? He’s one of the four Presidents represented on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. He was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He once said, “Let the watchwords of all our people be the old familiar watchwords of honesty, decency, fair-dealing, and commonsense…”
    Still not sure? If I’m forced to settle on just one, it’s Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, a native New Yorker and former New York assemblyman and governor who served as America’s 26th president from 1901 to 1909.
    For breadth of experience, devotion to lifelong learning, and love of country, T.R., as he was so commonly known, is more than noteworthy among America’s 44 presidencies.
    Visit the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, Theodore Roosevelt’s home on Long Island, and learn a little more about his legacy through the following National Park Service website: www.nps.gov/sahi/index.htm.

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