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COMMENTARY: My garden of heroes
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COMMENTARY: My garden of heroes

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David Shribman

David Shribman

In this month of national introspection, and as the air is full of the thump of toppled statues, President Donald Trump proposed creating a national statuary park. His gallery of American heroes reflects his inclinations and impulses -- several unavoidable pioneers, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and baseball pathfinder Jackie Robinson, along with 29 others, mostly white and Republican.

Many of the Trump selections -- Amelia Earhart, for example, and Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and the Wright Brothers -- could be in everybody's pantheon. But the president's garden lacks a diverse mix of Americans at full flower. So in the interest of historical crop rotation -- and in the ultimate pandemic parlor game -- I've matched Trump's 31 selections with 31 of my own. Feel free to make your own lists.

Let's start with Jonas Salk, who produced the polio vaccine. He's a symbol of American medical research at its finest and American volunteerism at its broadest; some 100 million Americans contributed money to the March of Dimes to help underwrite polio research. "It was," says Jason Opal, a McGill University historian writing a history of pandemics, "the Pax Americana moment."

Now let's add four American presidents -- one Democrat, Barack Obama (for breaking a formidable barrier), and three Republicans, Dwight Eisenhower (for his contribution in winning World War II and his unappreciated stewardship during the Cold War), Gerald Ford (for healing America after Watergate), and George H.W. Bush (for amazing American grace).

COMMENTARY: Seeking justice for all

An aside to explain the omission of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. They have memorials in the capital. And John F. Kennedy has the arts center on the Potomac. They're covered.

Let's not leave Emma Lazarus out of our garden. She made the immigrants' song a national anthem. Let's not omit Irving Berlin, who didn't write the national anthem but might have; "God Bless America" is often played at sporting events. Other Berlin songs, including "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade" -- the products of a Jew born in Russia -- are part of the American songbook.

That's seven. Now add Frank Lloyd Wright, for changing the built landscape of America by reflecting the natural landscape. Also John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed, for enriching the American landscape. How about Mary Cassatt, the impressionist painter who made us look at that landscape differently? Invite her in! As for that landscape, John Muir was its great celebrator and preserver. He helped keep parts of the West a garden and so belongs in ours.

Let's also induct two curators of the environment. The first is Rachel Carson, who alerted us to the dangers of pesticides and is one of the founding modern environmentalists. Then there is Henry David Thoreau. He was the tour guide of a specific sort of American Dream, the one of boundless possibility: "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams!" he implored. "Live the life you've imagined."

Trump has some male sports figures. I'd choose Diana Golden, the skier who won 10 world championships and an Olympic Gold Medal on one leg. She's a symbol of American grit. And let's add Althea Gibson, who in the words of Sally Jacobs, whose biography of the tennis star will be published in 2022, "became the first Black woman to be No. 1 in the world."

At the start of the AIDS crisis, I came to know Larry Kramer, who helped make the Gay Men's Health Crisis -- the actual name of the group he helped found -- an American crisis. He belongs in our garden. So does Sojourner Truth, who escaped from enslavement to become a prominent abolitionist and women's rights advocate. To round us out ideologically, let's invite in Barry Goldwater, who lost 44 states in his 1964 presidential campaign but changed conservatism, even as he himself changed as he grew older; there was no more fervent advocate of gay rights than the Arizona senator.

COMMENTARY: Ex-presidents could help

Trump has his personal favorites on his list, so I'm including one of mine on this one. So offer a warm welcome to Willa Cather, literary chanteuse of the West and author of my favorite last line of any novel, about Alexandra Bergson, the main character in her 1913 Nebraska elegy, "O Pioneers!": "Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!"

Who better to represent the American reach for adventure and the country's technological acumen than John Glenn, who rode Project Mercury's Friendship 7 into space in 1962 -- and as a senator rode the Space Shuttle in 1998 to become, at 77, the oldest person in space. One of the Original Seven astronauts, he was by any measure an American original.

Let's include two fighters for minority rights to a garden watered with the blood and toil of the native peoples who were the original Americans and the enslaved whose descendants still struggle for equality. Let's salute Crazy Horse, subject of a monument being blasted out of stone close to the Mount Rushmore sculpture Trump used as his Independence Day backdrop, and issue a huzzah to Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice and tireless warrior for justice.

That leaves room for nine more. Let's fill out the garden with a group of Black students who battled Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus to be admitted to Central High School in 1957. With the assistance of the 101st Airborne and the Arkansas National Guard, federalized by President Eisenhower, the Little Rock Nine entered the school.

Whew. This was no easy undertaking. I was forced to omit some of my favorites: Robert Frost and Kenneth Roberts, William Jennings Bryan and Ted Williams, Danny Kaye and Kay Graham, Louis Armstrong and Sinclair Lewis, Alexander Hamilton and Grover Cleveland Alexander.

But this exercise is a sobering reminder that no human is without flaws.

Bipartisan memories

Do we honor Henry Ford for his industrial genius despite his anti-Semitism? Do we join Princeton University in its years-long agony over whether to salute its former president, Woodrow Wilson, for his idealism during World War I or revile him for a lifetime of racism?

So I am forced to make a great admission. Many of those in my garden have flaws. Then again, so does the author of this column, and the readers of it.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.



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