Toward a better list of great Pennsylvanians

Posted: July 24, 2014

Almost a century ago, a pair of clever British writers published a send-up of history-as-memory titled 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, Comprising All the Parts You Can Remember, Including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings, and 2 Genuine Dates. Since then, I'm sorry to report, things have gone precipitously downhill.

We remember nothing. History is only what we know, or sort of know, perhaps imparted to us in movies, legal tender, and Fat Albert cartoons.

A recent poll ranking the greatest Pennsylvanians put Ben Franklin first (excellent) and Bill Cosby second (really?). Harper Polling asked almost 600 residents to rank great Pennsylvanians from among a preselected list of eight, the sole woman being Betsy Ross - a sew-sew choice. The list egregiously included James Buchanan, though historians perennially rank him among the nation's lousiest presidents - and that's with no shortage of competition.

I asked readers for a better list. Many of you responded with terrific suggestions. And Harper's Brock McCleary was game to try again with better candidates: "Whatever list readers come up with, we'll come up with a poll."

Among readers' suggestions was the Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott, a superb Pennsylvanian known for her tireless advocacy of racial and gender equality and social reform. A Philadelphian, Mott was one of the most acclaimed Americans of the 19th century, and she worked on many of the major issues of her day and ours.

Another nominee was Bayard Rustin, born in West Chester, a principal architect of the civil rights movement, the chief strategist of the March on Washington, a pacifist who was openly gay.

Several Pennsylvania generals valiantly led Union forces during the Civil War. Reader John O'Donnell of Rockledge recommended George Gordon Meade of Philadelphia, who led the defeat of Robert E. Lee's forces at Gettysburg; Winfield Scott Hancock (known as "Hancock the Superb"), a Montgomeryville native also praised for his command at Gettysburg; and Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs of Philadelphia, who helped build Fort Mifflin and Arlington National Cemetery.

Philadelphian Octavius Catto, the subject of a fine biography by Daniel Biddle, an Inquirer editor, and former reporter Murray Dubin, was an important 19th-century educator, civil rights pioneer, and orator, as well as a stellar second baseman.

Andrew Mellon was included in the Harper list, but not Andrew Carnegie, who financed public libraries and myriad educational institutions across the state and nation. Stephen Girard loaned the U.S. Treasury millions to finance the War of 1812 and bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to charity, including the founding of Girard College to educate poor children.

St. Katharine Drexel founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who established missions and schools for American Indians and African Americans.

George C. Marshall of Uniontown won the Nobel Peace Prize for his ambitious proposal to rebuild Europe after World War II, a plan that took his name. He served as Army chief of staff during that war and later as secretary of state and secretary of defense. "George Marshall is the greatest Pennsylvanian of all time," asserted reader Phil Williams of Oreland. "With all due respect to Benjamin Franklin, it's not even close."

In the arts, Marian Anderson, Pearl Bailey, W.C. Fields, August Wilson, and Andrew Wyeth were all suggested. John Updike's Rabbit novels are based in Brewer, Pa., a stand-in for the American master's native Reading.

In a separate Harper poll to rank great Pennsylvania athletes, Wilt Chamberlain was ranked tops. Missing from that poll's list was Olympian Jim Thorpe, deemed the 20th century's greatest athlete in several surveys. Though he was an Oklahoma native, Thorpe attended Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian Industrial School and is the only athlete with a town in the Poconos named for him.

Gifford Pinchot served as the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service and, as Pennsylvania governor, greatly expanded the commonwealth's park system, reorganized the government, and increased services for the poor. Then again, the Pike County Republican founded the Liquor Control Board to "discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible," a promise officials have largely made good on to this day.

Franklin and Marshall's G. Terry Madonna, who has taught American history, proposed author James A. Michener; the inventor and father of the steamboat, Robert Fulton; and the "father of American music," Stephen Foster. But, Madonna cautioned, "the problem is, we're asking people to vote on people they don't know anything about."

Because we remember nothing and ignore the past. A better suggestion, one superior to another survey, is to learn more of our history and the great men and women who came before us.

kheller@phillynews.com215-854-2586 @kheller

comments powered by Disqus