Send us your nominees for great Pennsylvanians

Posted: July 07, 2014

Ben Franklin is the best. He is a man of firsts for the state and the nation, and he's ours, despite his birth in Boston. Franklin is, by far, the most fun Founding Father, the revolutionary figure with whom you would most want to share that proverbial tankard of ale.

We are all about the Benjamin.

Franklin is the greatest Pennsylvanian, according to a recent Harper poll of the commonwealth, where 57 percent deemed him tops. Most likely, Franklin will always be our greatest citizen.

But Ben's been dead for more than two centuries, which makes us worry that our best days are seriously behind us. To live in Pennsylvania is to worry about this all the time.

Bill Cosby, Temple's greatest booster, came in second. (In the same poll, Temple was deemed the state's fourth "most respected" university, following Penn State, with the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon tied for second.)

Let us pause to consider this. Cosby is undoubtedly great. But is the creator of Fat Albert the second-greatest Pennsylvanian of all time, twice as important as William Penn, who settled the place?

The list goes downhill from there. Betsy Ross, the sole woman, makes the list, though her contributions to history are negligible. A much-married upholsterer and one of many flag makers, Ross is more a matter of myth, a story fabricated out of striped cloth by her grandson half a century after her death. Ross may have played a greater role in the birth of public relations (granted, a great American tradition) than in the birth of the country.

Penn is tied in greatness with Daniel Boone, whom I didn't even know was a Pennsylvanian. He left Berks County at age 16, and is claimed by Kentucky, which boasts a "Daniel Boone Country" region.

Pennsylvania's only White House resident, James Buchanan, also makes this list, even though he perennially dukes it out with Warren G. Harding and Andrew Johnson as worst president ever.

I am happy to report that in this survey of almost 600 wise residents, Buchanan was bested by Not Sure.

The Q factor

To be fair, respondents were given a choice of eight candidates to select. "We could have done a list of 25," said Harper's Brock McCleary. "We went with the ones who had, if you will, the greatest Q rating," the professional scoring system to gauge consumer appeal. Buchanan has a Q score? In a separate Harper poll of top Pennsylvania athletes, Wilt Chamberlain easily won, followed by Dan Marino and Arnold Palmer. Chamberlain would also best any list of legendary lotharios - anywhere.

McCleary admitted the list is more old than new, Cosby the sole choice who isn't long dead.

But Pennsylvania has offered the country so much since the time of Penn and Ben. In the arts, we have Thomas Eakins, Andy Warhol, Mary Cassatt, Frank Furness, James Stewart, Will Smith, three Barrymores, and two splendid Kellys, Gene and Grace.

In music, Pennsylvania produced Marian Anderson, Oscar Hammerstein, John Coltrane, Stephen Foster, Stan Getz, Sun Ra, Hall and Oates, Gamble and Huff, Pink and Taylor Swift. The state produces terrific writers: John Updike, August Wilson, John O'Hara, muckraking Ida Tarbell, Rachel Carson, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Mead. The commonwealth can do funny: W.C. Fields, Tina Fey, and the tonsorially challenged third of the Stooges, Larry Fine.

With politics, greatness is harder to locate. Among the ranks of Pennsylvania politicians are Alexander Haig, Newt Gingrich, Benjamin Netanyahu (his youth spent in Cheltenham), Joe Biden, and my favorite, abolitionist crusader Thaddeus Stevens.

A better list

Just as readers came up with slogans that were superior to those of Philadelphia's professional tourism agencies, I'm confident they can provide a better list of great Pennsylvanians. Among the living, I would start with Sister Mary Scullion.

Harper Polling is willing to survey the top entries in a future poll. "Whatever list readers come up with," McCleary told me, "we'll come up with a poll." So send us suggestions for great Pennsylvanians and include the reason for the nomination.

But, please, leave James Buchanan out of it.

215-854-2586 @kheller

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