Monday, February 19, 2024

Presidents Day 2024


Benjamin Harrison, our nation's 23rd president, (and grandson of the ninth president) served from 1889-1893. He admitted Idaho and five other states into the union, created the national forests, and oversaw a great deal of economic legislation, including the first billion dollar budget for the United States. He was called Little Ben because of his 5' 6" height and being the grandson of a former president. He is also known as the Centennial President for being inaugurated 100 years after George Washington. 

Photo by C.M. Bell
held by the Library of Congress
I was not filled with my usual anticipation and joy in the days leading up to this year's presidential portrait. The news of the presidential election coming up this November has already given me my fill of presidential politics. In 1892, Benjamin Harrison faced the same opponent he had beaten four years earlier, Grover Cleveland. However, that seems to be where the comparison ends. Harrison had been known as a front-porch campaigner in 1889, giving speeches from his home in Indiana rather than travelling the country and making headlines. In 1892, his wife was ill and both candidates agreed not to personally campaign and keep things low key and quiet leading up to the election. It's nearly impossible to imagine such a thing with today's barrage of news and sound bites. I, for one, would welcome giving it a try this year!

“I have traversed this broad land of ours, and out of all this journeying, out of all this mingling with our people, I have come to be a prouder and, I hope, a better American.”

For having only four years in office, Benjamin Harrison accomplished many things that we can still see today. He modernized the U.S. Navy, annexed Hawaii, and signed the Sherman Antitrust Act into law. He was also the first president to have his voice recorded and to have electric light in the White House (although he often slept with the lights on because he was afraid of being electrocuted by touching the switches). For being a lesser-known president, he made some incredibly quotable statements. I included one on the photo, but had to add a few more between my paragraphs.

“I pity the man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth will starve in the process.”

Admitting Idaho to the Union has made Harrison a background fixture of my entire life. Growing up on Lake Coeur d'Alene, I always enjoyed a trip across the lake to visit the town of Harrison. As a teacher, most of my career has been spent at Bryan Elementary on Harrison Street. Interestingly enough, if Harrison had won a second term it is likely my school's namesake, William Jennings Bryan, would have been the president to follow him in 1897.

"Great lives do not go out, they go on."

If you care to see my interpretations of some of our great (and not so great) presidents of the past

Monday, February 20, 2023

Presidents Day 2023


John Fitzgerald Kennedy was our nation's 35th president, serving from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. His presidency is remembered for conflict with the Soviet Union and Cuba, progress in spaceflight, and the beginnings of civil rights legislation. He is also remembered as a charismatic speaker.

Photo by Rapoport/Getty

Kennedy has been on my mind since attending a recent teaching workshop on Document Based Inquiry. In one of the sessions, we read speeches by Kennedy and Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev following the Cuban Missile Crisis and endeavored to view those words as ourselves, an American citizen in 1962, and a Russian citizen of that time. It was a good reminder that history is both complex and cyclical. Some of the things said by Kennedy and Khrushchev are not too far from what we are hearing from Biden and Putin regarding Ukraine.

I knew that this year's picture would honor Kennedy when I ran across this quote from his response to a Saturday Review presidential candidate questionnaire in the final days of his 1960 campaign for the presidency.

If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all—except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the Bill of Rights is the guardian of our security as well as our liberty.

Kennedy was a voracious reader
Photo from JFK Library collection

When I was younger, I aspired to be the President of the United States. In fact, the long term goals in my high school day planner included a run for the presidency in 2028. With less than a decade to go, I haven't yet created relationships in a political party or run for any public office. I hereby declare I will NOT be running for president in 2028.

However, I was appointed to the Coeur d'Alene Public Library Board of Trustees in 2020 and was just elected as chair of that board. Although that position does not require me to bear anywhere near the responsibility required of the President of the United States, the decisions I am making there often require careful deliberation and can weigh heavily on my mind. Much of our work is updating library policy. Making sure that our accessibility policy included miniature horses as service animals and  that other policies are updated to reflect current technology are easy decisions. Other work, such as selecting a new library director, approving COVID safety policies, and figuring out what should be included in a trustee code of ethics have been more difficult.

For the last year and a half on the board, most of our meetings have included public comment concerned about the books that are in the library. As trustees, we have the responsibility to approve a book selection policy, but the actual collection is chosen and maintained by the library staff. The board is also the last stop for any book that is formally challenged by a community member. 

It is my belief that the library should, as Kennedy said, include controversial books and controversial authors. It is up to an individual to choose which of those books come into their home to be read. There may be a question as to where they should be shelved in the library, but there is room in the library (and its book purchasing budget) for books that reflect and books that challenge the values and experiences of everyone in our community. "...We need more new ideas for more wise [people] reading more good books in more public libraries."

Happy Presidents Day! 

Should you seek to fix the blame for my past portraits:

Monday, February 21, 2022

Presidents' Day 2022

Zachary Taylor, our nation's twelfth president, only held that position for less than a year and a half. As such, his presidency ended up being of little consequence.

Source: Library of Congress via National Park Service
(public domain)

Cherries have often been a symbol of Presidents' Day due to the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree that first appeared in Parson Weems' A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington. The book, filled largely with falsehoods, was one of the most influential books of United States history through the first half of the 19th century. In fact, Historian Charles M. McPherson has said that it is likely the only U.S. History Abraham Lincoln studied as a young man. The fabricated cherry tree story was shared with generations of students through its later publication in the McGuffey Reader. It goes as follows:

The following anecdote is a case in point. It is too valuable to be lost, and too true to be doubted; for it was communicated to me by the same excellent lady to whom I am indebted for the last. "When George," said she, "was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet! Of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother's pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don't believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman, finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the by, was a great favourite, came into the house; and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him anything about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. "George," said his father, "do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?" This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, "I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet." "Run to my arms, you dearest boy," cried his father in transports, "run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold."

Parson Weems' Fable by Grant Wood, 1939
(Public Domain)

Although it is a charming story, there is no evidence to support it. Yet it was taught for years in school. I even think I read a version in contemporary language when I was in elementary school. That sort of myth-making definitely makes for a feel-good lesson, but real history is so much more interesting. As a teacher, I strive to give my students the truth as we can best understand it after the passage of time. It is important to draw the line between history and historical fiction if we are to prepare students to think critically and make up their own minds about our societal past, present, and future.

Why do I spend half of a blog post about Zachary Taylor talking about Parson Weems' made up story about George Washington's honesty? It is only prelude to the superior Presidents' Day story of cherries, the Washington Monument, and Zachary Taylor (no hatchets required.)

On July 4, 1850, President Zachary Taylor, sometimes referred to as "Old Rough and Ready" for his exploits in the Mexican-American War and his long career in the U.S. Army spoke at the site where the Washington Monument would soon be constructed. To beat the scorching heat of the day, he ate a large amount of raw cherries along with iced milk. Upon returning to the White House, he drank multiple glasses of water. Either bacteria present in one of the foods or the combination of acidic cherries with the milk caused severe stomach pains. Five days later, he died. His last words are reported as “I am about to die. I expect the summons very soon. I have tried to discharge all my duties faithfully. I regret nothing, but I am sorry that I am about to leave my friends.” Although he didn't say it, I bet he regretted his Fourth of July dining choices as well.

Taylor had opposed expanding slavery into the territories added to the United States following the Mexican-American War. For many years after his death, rumors grew that Southern proponents of slavery had poisoned the president. Nearly 150 years later in 1991, Zachary Taylor's body was exhumed to investigate the cause of death. Although trace amounts of arsenic were found, Tenessee coroner George Nicols concluded Taylor's death was caused by any of “a myriad of natural diseases which could have produced the symptoms of gastroenteritis.”

Although this story does not have a simple lesson about a virtue such as honesty, it is a good reminder to watch what you eat and drink, especially in areas where cholera is often present in the water (Washington, D.C. had terrible sewage problems at the time).

In addition to the fascinating story, the exhumation of Zachary Taylor makes his the only presidential skull viewable in a photo. If you want to see it, visit the site for the William M. Maples collection at Florida Gulf Coast University. That is not a presidential photo I plan to emulate.

If you need all the gory details of my long-standing Presidential portrait series:

This year, as always, Sarah Windisch deserves thanks for her photography and editing. Notice the digital wallpaper behind my portrait. That hand-made, cherry damask: all Sarah's work and talent!

Monday, February 15, 2021

Presidents Day 2021


Our 38th President, Gerald Ford, happens to be our only president who was never elected to either the position of President and Vice President. That isn't the only thing that makes him, and the photo I emulated this year, complicated. 

One of Gerald Ford's first actions as president was pardoning his successor, Richard Nixon. Ford became president upon Richard Nixon's resignation. The country was deeply divided with many wanting to see Nixon punished for his role in the Watergate break-in. Announcing the pardon, Ford said, "[The Nixon Family's situation] is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must." Today it is impossible to know whether his decision allowed our country to move on or if it sowed seeds that contributed to the great division we feel today.

When I first saw this photo of Gerald Ford receiving the swine flu vaccine on October 14,1976, I knew it was the only photo I could do when Presidents' Day 2021 fell on the day of my vaccine appointment for COVID-19. However, the story behind this photo is not one of medical triumph. After a young soldier at Fort Dix died of swine flu in February, Ford called for a national swine flu immunization program. The rush to deliver a vaccine resulted in some vaccine doses containing the wrong viral strain. The feared pandemic never materialized and many people feared the vaccine was responsible for dozens vaccine recipients contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome. The vaccine program ended after nearly a quarter of the U.S. population (including President Ford) received the shot. However, the damage to the credibility of vaccines was long lasting, and still affects us.

"When the U.S. Government Tried to Fast-Track a Flu Vaccine" by Christopher Klein is a worthwhile read if you want to learn more.

Ford's official White House portrait

Although he is often remembered as the "accidental president" since he never publicly aspired to that office, he is also remembered as a man of integrity. After leaving the White House, he put aside his differences with Jimmy Carter, who beat him in the 1976 election, and the two eventually became close friends. 

In learning about Gerald Ford this year, I was struck by the parallels between some of the challenges of his presidency and the problems we face today. It is those connections that have made history endlessly fascinating to me. I hope that you will work to find the connections between history and the present as well. When it comes to President Ford, a good start is his address to the nation upon pardoning former President Nixon.

Ladies and gentlemen:

I have come to a decision which I felt I should tell you and all of my fellow American citizens, as soon as I was certain in my own mind and in my own conscience that it is the right thing to do.

I have learned already in this office that the difficult decisions always come to this desk. I must admit that many of them do not look at all the same as the hypothetical questions that I have answered freely and perhaps too fast on previous occasions.

My customary policy is to try and get all the facts and to consider the opinions of my countrymen and to take counsel with my most valued friends. But these seldom agree, and in the end, the decision is mine. To procrastinate, to agonize, and to wait for a more favorable turn of events that may never come or more compelling external pressures that may as well be wrong as right, is itself a decision of sorts and a weak and potentially dangerous course for a President to follow.

I have promised to uphold the Constitution, to do what is right as God gives me to see the right, and to do the very best that I can for America.

I have asked your help and your prayers, not only when I became President but many times since. The Constitution is the supreme law of our land and it governs our actions as citizens. Only the laws of God, which govern our consciences, are superior to it.

As we are a nation under God, so I am sworn to uphold our laws with the help of God. And I have sought such guidance and searched my own conscience with special diligence to determine the right thing for me to do with respect to my predecessor in this place, Richard Nixon, and his loyal wife and family.

Theirs is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.

There are no historic or legal precedents to which I can turn in this matter, none that precisely fit the circumstances of a private citizen who has resigned the Presidency of the United States. But it is common knowledge that serious allegations and accusations hang like a sword over our former President's head, threatening his health as he tries to reshape his life, a great part of which was spent in the service of this country and by the mandate of its people.

After years of bitter controversy and divisive national debate, I have been advised, and I am compelled to conclude that many months and perhaps more years will have to pass before Richard Nixon could obtain a fair trial by jury in any jurisdiction of the United States under governing decisions of the Supreme Court.

I deeply believe in equal justice for all Americans, whatever their station or former station. The law, whether human or divine, is no respecter of persons; but the law is a respecter of reality.

The facts, as I see them, are that a former President of the United States, instead of enjoying equal treatment with any other citizen accused of violating the law, would be cruelly and excessively penalized either in preserving the presumption of his innocence or in obtaining a speedy determination of his guilt in order to repay a legal debt to society.

During this long period of delay and potential litigation, ugly passions would again be aroused. And our people would again be polarized in their opinions. And the credibility of our free institutions of government would again be challenged at home and abroad.

In the end, the courts might well hold that Richard Nixon had been denied due process, and the verdict of history would even be more inconclusive with respect to those charges arising out of the period of his Presidency, of which I am presently aware.

But it is not the ultimate fate of Richard Nixon that most concerns me, though surely it deeply troubles every decent and every compassionate person. My concern is the immediate future of this great country.

In this, I dare not depend upon my personal sympathy as a longtime friend of the former President, nor my professional judgment as a lawyer, and I do not.

As President, my primary concern must always be the greatest good of all the people of the United States whose servant I am. As a man, my first consideration is to be true to my own convictions and my own conscience.

My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed. My conscience tells me that only I, as President, have the constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to insure it. I do believe that the buck stops here, that I cannot rely upon public opinion polls to tell me what is right. I do believe that right makes might and that if I am wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference. I do believe, with all my heart and mind and spirit, that I, not as President but as a humble servant of God, will receive justice without mercy if I fail to show mercy.

Finally, I feel that Richard Nixon and his loved ones have suffered enough and will continue to suffer, no matter what I do, no matter what we, as a great and good nation, can do together to make his goal of peace come true.

Now, therefore, I, Gerald R. Ford, President of the United States, pursuant to the pardon power conferred upon me by Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, have granted and by these presents do grant a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from July (January) 20, 1969, through August 9, 1974.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this eighth day of September, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and seventy-four, and of the Independence of the United States of America the one hundred and ninety-ninth.

President Gerald R. Ford - September 8, 1974

Of course you could always learn the history of my strange Presidents' Day tradition as well.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Presidents Day 2020

Calvin Coolidge A.K.A. The Sphinx of the Potomac or Silent Cal, became president upon the death of Warren G. Harding*. He is known for restoring trust in the presidency as the many scandals caused by the unethical dealings of Harding and his inner circle came to light. Although his reputation as a man of few words comes from the numerous parties he had to attend as vice president, he is quoted as saying "The words of a president have enormous weight, and ought not to be used indiscriminately."

President Coolidge was a snappy dresser, as well. He preferred big hats and double-breasted suits. Taking this year's photo was a good chance to take advantage of a boldly-printed vintage tie and a rarely-used chapeau. This year I also enlisted my barber's help in achieving the Calvin Coolidge look. 
This is a presidential look I can only dream of pulling off.

In learning more about our 30th president, I came across a number of interesting facts and amusing photos. Some of the best are collected in the Thrillist article "Calvin Coolidge: Best President Ever"

If you're new to my Presidents' Day tradition (or just can't get enough of it), check out photos from past years.
2019 George H.W. Bush
2018 Richard Nixon
2017 Grover Cleveland
2016 Ulysses S. Grant
2012 - 2015 Lincoln, Arthur, Hayes, Taft, Garfield, and Theodore Roosevelt

*My Warren G. Harding photo will require a live elephant. If you have access to one, please contact me immediately.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Presidents Day 2019

When George H.W. Bush passed away at the end of November, I saw this picture for the first time. It was such a joyful president photo I immediately knew that I would need to recreate this one when we had a particularly snowy February. This year delivered: we just came out of our area's longest stretch of days with measurable snow in over 80 years.

Camp David has a rich sledding tradition beyond
the 1991 outing that inspired my picture. 

George H.W. Bush's presidency coincided with my middle school years when I really developed an interest in politics. After purchasing a President Bush mask (with moving mouth!) and watching Dana Carvey's impersonation on Saturday Night Live again and again, I begin making appearances as President Bush. I even tried out for the talent show my freshman year of high school taking an old George Burns and Gracie Allen routine and adapting it for President Bush and Vice-President Quayle impersonations. For some reason, it wasn't the type of act they were looking for.

Someday I'll share a George Bush picture
from my middle school yearbook.

This picture represents a few firsts for the series. This is the first picture I've done of a president from my lifetime. It's my first color photo. It's also the first time I've had to seek help outside my family to get the picture. A friend from community band loaned me the army cap, and I met a number of families from my school at the local sledding hill where parents of my students graciously provided the toboggan, served as Arnold Schwarzenegger's body double, and took the photo. This photo also represents my most significant photo editing. Arnold's children do not attend my school, so Sarah did some face swapping. The only previous photo trickery involved stretching Rutherford B. Hayes's beard. Who knows what firsts (if any) next year's photo will bring?

Stay out of the cold and enjoy the rest of the series:
2020 Calvin Coolidge
2018 Richard Nixon
2017 Grover Cleveland
2016 Ulysses S. Grant
2012 - 2015 Lincoln, Arthur, Hayes, Taft, Garfield, and Theodore Roosevelt

Friday, November 23, 2018

Book Review - The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
by Kathi Appelt
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Paperback - May 20, 2014

Deep in the Sugar Man Swamp, Audie Brayburn's rusted 1949 Chrysler DeSoto has become home to raccoon brothers Bingo and J'miah. As brand new swamp scouts, their job is to monitor the swamp and wake up the mysterious Sugar Man in the event of an emergency. Their first five days on the job coincide with an ominous rumbling created by an animal threat drawing near.

Meanwhile Audie Brayburn's grandson, Chap, is learning what it means to be the man of the house following his grandfather's death. His family's way of life is in danger as their home and bakery at the edge of the swamp stands in the way of a proposed Gator Wrestling Arena and Theme Park. He needs a boatload of cash or a visit from the Sugar Man to stop this human threat.

From beginning to end, this was a fun book to read. I really enjoyed getting to know the characters. J'miah's nervousness at Bingo's death-defying tree climbs, Gertrude the giant rattlesnake's itchiness, and Coyoteman Jim's late-night thoughts at the local radio station made the characters feel real. Chap was the star of the story, though, as he longed for a message from his grandpa that would help him save the Paradise Pies Cafe. I was moved by the mixture of hope and longing as he revisited Audie's birding sketchbooks to search for ideas and advice.

When a book knows it's using terrific vocabulary!
As great as the characters were, the author's voice is what really makes this a special book. The frequent perspective changes between the human and animal world are often separated by chapters full of facts about topics ranging from the history of the Polaroid camera to the behavior of alligators that quickly tie in to the story's big picture. In addition, the book often draws attention to its own beautiful vocabulary. After one character proposes that the Sugar Man is no longer extant the author places the message "Extant. What a great word that is" in parentheses. It's one of many times that the narration pops off the page.

This was one of the 2019 Idaho Kids Vote Book Award nominees I had not read before this year's program began. When I started reading, I thought the Deep South setting was an unusual choice for our state book award. Wouldn't Idaho kids relate to a book about life in the mountains better? Even though we don't have bayous, our wilderness faces threats, too. I think the unfamiliar setting gives readers in Idaho just enough distance to consider the message of finding harmony with nature. Not only will that message stick with me, I think the laugh out loud moments and touching relationships in the book will have me remembering the residents of the Sugar Man Swamp for years to come.