Millard Fillmore is famous for being obscure. The 13th president of the United States has gone down in history for not going down in history.
Except in Western New York.
Here, his name rings out on a daily basis. We have Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital. Millard Fillmore College, at UB. Fillmore Avenue.
And the annual Millard Fillmore graveside ceremony.
This tradition, which began in 1937, takes place this year at 10 a.m. Jan. 6. (Jan. 7 was the date Fillmore was born, in 1800.) People gather, shivering, at Fillmore's resting place in Forest Lawn. It is in Section F. Signs will direct you.
Flags wave, colorful against the snow. Wreaths, one of them from the current president, are placed on Fillmore's grave. A UB professor makes remarks. Fillmore was the first chancellor of UB, which has sponsored this event for the last half century. Finally, a bugler plays "Taps."
The ceremony honors a man with a complicated legacy.
You'd think that Fillmore was a blueblood. There's that name. And the fact that he was the first president of the Buffalo Club. And that statue of him outside City Hall, which depicts him handsome and statesmanlike. You would assume he had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth
In actuality, Millard Fillmore was born into a farming family so abject that "dirt poor" hardly begins to describe it. His parents could not feed him, and apprenticed him to a cloth maker, who abused him. Always, though, Fillmore fought his way up. He sought out tutoring to read and write.
Subsequently he fell in love with his teacher, and when he was 17 and she was 19, he married her. (This factoid came in handy recently for me on a recent 100 Things adventure, trivia at Founding Fathers Pub. It won me a chocolate Santa.)
He was brilliant enough so that with hardly any formal education, he was able to become a lawyer. Meanwhile, he built a home for his bride, a touchingly humble cottage that still stands in East Aurora. It is the only house a president built with his own hands.
I like a man like that. So, apparently, did Queen Victoria. Meeting Millard Fillmore after his presidency, she said he was the most handsome man she had ever seen.
That he could transcend his miserable childhood to become the president of the United States, and one of the most elegant figures of his era, makes him worthy of anyone's admiration. And yet history has not been kind to Fillmore. It used to bother him, for starters, when folks would say Abraham Lincoln was the first president born in a log cabin.
"What about me?" Fillmore would say.
Many condemn him for having passed Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850, which stopped the spread of slavery but, as a concession to slave owners, included the Fugitive Slave Act. As usual, things are more complicated than they appear on the History Channel. Fillmore believed slavery was evil, and said so publicly.
As a young lawyer, he defended an escaped slave, pro bono. As president, though, he believed that slavery had to be endured until the Constitution could be amended.
Personal convictions vs. sworn duty -- this is a dilemma we are still struggling with today. As we ponder that, it's interesting to note that Fillmore would never have faced this thorny decision but for the sudden death of his White House predecessor, "Old Rough and Ready" Zachary Taylor, who ate bad food at a Fourth of July celebration.
Now Fillmore takes the rap while Taylor, who supported slavery and was the last president to own slaves while in office, comes down through history smelling like a rose. No goal, as we say around here. Wide right!
Scholars give Fillmore credit for keeping the Union together at a crucial juncture. Western New York credits him for a host of achievements.
A Unitarian, Fillmore invited Buffalo's Bishop John Timon (another man born in a log cabin) to the White House, and gave money toward St. Joseph's Cathedral. The History Museum, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo General Medical Center, the Buffalo Museum of Science, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, the Buffalo Public Schools, and the local SPCA -- Fillmore was central to establishing all of them.
To top it off, he had a sense of humor. When Oxford University tried to give him an honorary degree, he declined. He had never learned Latin, he apologized. He didn't think anyone should accept a degree that he could not understand.
That self-deprecating joke, and the many gifts he gave our area, all return to one theme -- learning. Fillmore wanted us to have it easier than he did.