Written by Kurt Moore
as published in the July 24, 2011 edition of The Marion Star
MARION - Marion's hometown president is getting a second chance in history as events such as the Warren G. Harding Symposium shed new light on the life and times of America's 29th leader.
The Ohio State University-Marion sponsored the symposium on Friday and Saturday as researchers focused on President Warren G. Harding's trip out west. The six-week 1923 trip, which included a two-week stay in what was then the territory of Alaska, served as the backdrop as historians explored its place in Harding's presidency and his death that cut the trip short.
Sherry Hall, the Harding Home's site manager, discussed the importance of the trip and shared some anecdotes of what happened. Alaskan historian James Geraughty talked about what the territory would have been like then while Dr. Richard Harding, the late president's great-nephew, shared his insight into medical records that show a series of heart attacks led up to his death in San Francisco.
A wine and open house at the historic Marion Union Station on Friday evening spotlighted the importance of the train station to Harding's "front porch" campaigns that drew thousands to the city. Saturday morning's events started out with tours of the Harding Home, Harding Tomb and the Marion County Historical Society's Heritage Hall.
Participants praised the symposium for showing Harding in a new light, one focused on his accomplishments rather than reported scandals that emerged after his death. Local residents, meanwhile, complimented Ohio State Marion and its partners for drawing people to the city.
"It's a real asset to Marion," said resident Carol Poston, who complimented organizers on the amount of history shared.
"I am impressed with the quality of things on display," said Mary Poston, Carol's mother-in-law.
Hall talked about how Harding's trip out west was rare during a time when most of the country's population would have been east of the Mississippi River. She told about how Harding got sunburned while climbing around on farm machinery in Kansas and shared little known facts such as how Idaho Falls gave Harding a paper mache "potato."
While answering questions afterwards she also told how Harding became the first sitting president to visit Canada and how visits abroad during that time by presidents were frowned upon.
"America wanted their president to stay at home," she said.
Harding gave 86 speeches during the trip, which was to go on for two months but fell short when Harding became ill and later died. He had explored Alaska and looked into claims its natural resources were being exploited while hearing concerns of westerners, though his death meant he would not have a chance to put what he learned into action.
The two-day event drew about 140 people. Gary Iams, Ohio State Marion's coordinator of development and community relations, said it drew participants from nine states other than Ohio.
Tennessee high school teacher Kevin Brewer came after reading about it online. His interest in Harding had led him to focus on the late president while writing a paper on historiography, or the study of how history has been written and rewritten.
Brewer said this the case with Harding, who is going through a sort of a such revisionism as more details emerge about his presidency. While usually revisionism is focused on "trashing someone revered in the past," he said in the case of Harding it's more a push to rescue his reputation.
While exciting, he said such information doesn't always reach "non-academians" who aren't active in a college or university.
"You still don't see much getting into the popular mindset," said Brewer, who said he still hears people talk about Harding more negatively.
Delaware resident Dick Tuttle, who previously taught physical education in Marion, praised organizers for their efforts to present more information on Harding. He said a love of history drew him to take part.
"I think Harding was a great man who probably was misjudged," he said. "We would be wise to listen to his philosophies today."
Reporter Kurt Moore: 740-375-5151 or firstname.lastname@example.org