Somewhere on Thursday morning, President Millard Fillmore was smiling.
If not because of the herculean effort by the grounds crew at Forest Lawn in removing truckloads of snow from his resting place in Section F, then for the presence of a hearty band of schoolchildren from East Aurora, who knew a lot about the president who embraced education through experience.
Sebastian Howes, 14, of Alden, attends the Mandala School, a small charter middle school located on Main Street in East Aurora. Sebastian said the nation’s 13th president was a popular topic at Mandala.
“Our school is in a house that Millard Fillmore visited a lot, so it’s a common topic that we talk about,” Sebastian said. “Millard Fillmore was friends with the owner of the house, which was the first doctor’s office in East Aurora.”
The observance, co-sponsored by the University at Buffalo since 1965, was originally scheduled for Fillmore’s birthday on Tuesday, but the storm forced organizers to reschedule it for Thursday.
“Getting up here could have been a problem,” said William J. Regan, director of UB’s Office of Special Events. The knoll that is home to Fillmore and other Buffalo notables was polished Thursday when temperatures were 11 degrees and the sun shone bright. At a neighboring grave, stone cherubs sprouted icicles that hung from their wings.
The theme throughout the brief late-morning ceremony was Fillmore the educator, and speaker after speaker highlighted the various academic contributions of the university’s first chancellor.
“He recognized the value of higher education for all citizens of Buffalo and Western New York,” said Larry Gingrich, associate dean of UB’s Millard Fillmore College. “In keeping with his vision, Millard Fillmore College has served the adult population since 1923, when it first began in downtown Buffalo. MFC made it possible for adults to receive education while meeting family obligations.”
The choice of SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Claude E. Welch as keynote speaker is believed to be the first time in the 49 years of UB sponsorship that a main speaker was invited back, according to Regan.
Welch did not disappoint. The graduate of Harvard University, who earned an advanced degree from Oxford University, was an up-and-coming faculty member in the department of political science when he delivered his first address at Fillmore’s grave in 1968.
This time, he chronicled Fillmore’s life and the lessons he lived by.
“Though your time in school is short, pursue self-education,” Welch told about 30 people who attended the ceremony. “Millard Fillmore was in a large measure an autodidact. We academics like to toss out terms like that. It means to teach yourself.”