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Pa group celebrates life of Woodrow Wilson

December 18, 2013
Associated Press

CARLISLE, Pa. (AP) — It can be hard at times to grasp the big picture of any U.S. president — especially if his image is enclosed in a large bulky frame.

Pat Stumbaugh once had to lug a heavy portrait of Woodrow Wilson into a birthday dinner while helping her father out of the car and to the door. She was lucky a friend was there to help.

"It was icy and snowy," she recalled. "We had Woodrow in one hand and my father in the other. We had to tread very carefully. We didn't want to go down."

A challenge at the time, the experience is a fond memory from her many decades of involvement in the Woodrow Wilson Birthday Association of Cumberland County.

For 88 years now, a group of county residents have paid tribute to Wilson by hosting an annual luncheon or dinner on or about Dec. 28, his birthday.

"It was popular at the time of his death to start these associations," said Debra Wallet of Camp Hill, the group's current president. "There have been many of them across the country. We are the last one that has been continuously operating. We have been able to confirm that with the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library."

A Democrat, Wilson served two terms as the 28th President from 1913 to 1921. He died on Feb. 3, 1924, and on Dec. 28, 1925, The Evening Sentinel reported how the county association held its first banquet in his honor at the Molly Pitcher Hotel on South Hanover Street in Carlisle.

Stumbaugh was a little girl when she first attended the annual commemoration with her parents, Harold and Mildred Stum of Carlisle. Her father had been the association treasurer for as far back as she could remember before he died and the duties of the office were passed down to her.

"They used to have students make speeches on Woodrow Wilson," said Stumbaugh, 83, a life-long Carlisle resident. "All four of my children have done it."

She said every year a president is elected by the membership to organize the next birthday dinner or luncheon. The treasurer tracks how many people have paid to attend the event, which has traditionally included a keynote speaker on a topic related to Wilson and his presidency.

Wallet first got involved in the association about 20 years ago after she saw an ad for an event.

"I am a loyal person ... I keep going every year," she said. "We have a hard-core group of about 10 people who are trying to keep it alive."

The group's status as sole survivor is the main reason why the county association continues, even though the majority of its members are elderly.

"When you are the last one, you got to keep it going," Wallet said. "Still we worry that it tends to be the older folks that come and are loyal."

Stumbaugh said she thinks it is remarkable that the club championed by her parents has stayed around.

"The youth of today are not too much into this type of thing," she said. "As the rest of us become older and older, I am not sure how it would go."

This was the first year association members sponsored a contest that invited high school students from across Cumberland County to write an essay on Woodrow Wilson and his legacy as president.

"The purpose is to ensure that young folks know about Wilson, what he was and what he did," Wallet said.

Students had two topics from which to choose. One had to do with the issue of public versus private funding of services in the context of Wilson's support of the Lincoln Highway Association that funded a road linking Lancaster, York, Gettysburg and Chambersburg. The other topic referenced Wilson's signing into law a bill that established the Federal Reserve Bank and how that institution helped or hindered the current recovery from the recession of 2008.

Andrew Phillips, a curator at the Wilson Presidential Library, said he was surprised the Cumberland County association has lasted this long. It was primarily due to partisan politics that such groups were formed shortly after Wilson died.

"Being a Democrat or a Republican encompassed a lot of your life," he explained. "There was a dedication to past presidents that we do not see anymore."

Freed slaves and Republicans from across the country started birthday associations for Abraham Lincoln. The thinking among Democrats in the 1920s may have been to start associations to honor Wilson as a counterpoint to Lincoln.

"What started as being an organization primarily of Democrats has become much more non-partisan over the years," Wallet said of the county association.

An attorney interested in labor law, Wallet admires Wilson for trying to enact legislation that prohibited child labor. She added Wilson as president was very active in securing an eight-hour work day.

Wilson was not particularly popular when he first left office in 1921, Phillips said. He said the president had suffered a stroke in his second term and that many of his efforts for a lasting peace after World War I fell through after the Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles or U.S. participation in the League of Nations.

Only later did Wilson experience such a rebound in popularity that people used to gather outside his home in Washington, D.C. hoping to catch a glimpse of the former president or to listen to him speak, Phillips said.

For much of his term after the stroke, Wilson's wife Ellen carried on a lot of the presidential duties, according to Stumbaugh.

"She was extremely powerful," said Phillips, adding her role was to control who saw Woodrow and what issues were brought to his attention.

To say she was the first female president, however, would be a stretch.

"The first female chief of staff is a more apt analogy," Phillips said.




Information from: The Sentinel,



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