I recently toured the Pantheon, the Parisian tribute to great French leaders (yes, I realize that “great French leaders” is a bit of an oxymoron, but stay with me here I'm making a point). It was, despite my distinctively American bias, extremely impressive. Entombed there were Frenchmen who made significant contributions to not just their country, but all humanity - Voltaire, Rousseau, the Curies and Victor Hugo, to name a few.
The tour triggered a childhood memory of my reading about an American Hall of Fame in our old World Book encyclopedia, so, when I returned, I looked it up, using 21st century Google technology this time. It turns out that the American equivalent to the Pantheon, if you even want to call it an "equivalent," hasn’t been updated since I read about it as a child. Indeed, it now tragically dishonors the 102 great Americans memorialized there. And it's time to do something about it.
The Hall of Fame for Great Americans began in 1900 on the campus of what was then New York University. While initially a success and source of great national pride, the once celebrated portico has fallen into great disrepair. It now sits in a gritty area of the Bronx on the campus of Bronx Community College, NYU having relocated in 1973 and taking with it much of the status that the Hall once had. No one has been elected to the Hall since 1976, the official selection committee apparently having been disbanded. In fact, the organization, to the extent there is one, can’t even afford the busts of the people they’ve already elected. It’s a national disgrace, and meager efforts to refurbish it have been unsuccessful.
Considering the success of, and importance given to, our myriad lesser halls of fame, we can and should offer the memory of our greatest Americans something better than a sparsely frequented portico in the Bronx with rusting busts and crumbling columns. We should house the stories of those great Americans in a building befitting their contributions, and place it where they can inspire the many great Americans yet to come. As it is now, it’s like keeping the portrait of a beloved grandfather in the basement bathroom.
Here’s what I suggest. First, transfer the Hall of Fame to the nation’s capital, preferably on land either adjacent to the home of the greatest American, George Washington, or adjacent to our most hallowed ground, Arlington National Cemetery. A shrine to the achievement of the American spirit would fit perfectly in this area, already so rich in history. As to funding, like other civic memorials, the new Hall of Fame could be funded by a public-private partnership. It could even be funded in conjunction with, or as a part of, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. However, some initial support, financial and emotional, from the state and local government obviously would help get this project off to a great start. As such, I urge Governor McDonnell and the General Assembly to commit to an exploration of this in the upcoming legislative session. We Virginians have always taken the lead on historic preservation. This is another great opportunity to show our leadership in that regard.
In addition to a new facility, the Hall of Fame obviously needs new management and a new management structure. One historian referred to the current state of the committee as a case of “organizational comatosis" but I think that's being generous. As mentioned above, the committee apparently has been disbanded, and the upkeep of the existing facility has fallen to the community college. But even when it was functioning, the committee made some poor decisions on maintenance and even its selections. Grover Cleveland. Really?
This brings me to my final point – the Americans who should be added to the Hall of Fame. Quite a few great Americans are missing from the current list so I’ve taken the liberty of setting forth below some greats whom I believe should be added (some have not been dead for the requisite 25 years, but I’ll put them on the list anyway). Feel free to add yours. It will show just how much we have achieved as a nation and how proud we are of the Americans who have come before us.
Among those on my list:
John C. Fremont
Richard E. Byrd, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
John D. Rockefeller
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton