Published January 9, 2017
Once again, while commemorating Millard Fillmore’s birth on Jan. 7, 1800, the weather at his resting place was bone-chilling, as a small crowd gathered last Friday to honor’s the nation’s 13th president and UB’s first chancellor.
As so often happens at the annual graveside service in Forest Lawn Cemetery, the frigid temperature was tempered by sunlight glinting on the granite obelisk honoring Fillmore and his family, bringing into stark relief images of a presidential wreath; U.S., New York State and UB flags; and other pageantry developed over the past 52 years that UB has been hosting the Fillmore event.
The invocation by the Rev. Joan Montagnes, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, where Fillmore was once a member, touched on the last Whig president’s uneven political legacy. Just as the annual Forest Lawn observance is often made “difficult” by the weather, she said, so does his “colossal decision” to support the Compromise of 1850 make it problematic for commemoration speakers to chart an appropriate rhetorical pathway.
Evaluating Fillmore’s presidency requires context and perspective, Montagnes said. His decision to sign the compromise legislation — temporarily preserving the union while requiring enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act — “came from a place of comfort to appease people rather than to bring justice to the land he loved and was called to serve. As we celebrate his life today, let us remember the good he did, which was much.”
Fillmore had the distinction — unique to this day — of serving simultaneously as an American university leader and as president of the United States. A Buffalo resident for many of his 74 years, Fillmore was successively a member of Congress, comptroller of New York State and U.S. vice president before succeeding President Zachary Taylor in 1850. A reminder of his presidential status came with the wreath laying by Lt. Col. Gary Charlton, representing President Obama; the presentation of colors by the UB Police Color Guard; and the plaintive sounding of taps by SUNY Fredonia student Matthew J. Caputy at ceremony’s end.
Eleven speakers representing Fillmore’s “legacy organizations” extolled the 13th president’s civic contributions and gifts of spirit, intellect and financial support that continue to reverberate throughout the region. President Satish K. Tripathi represented UB, which Fillmore helped to found in 1846. He was joined by representatives of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Buffalo Club, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, Buffalo General Medical Center, Buffalo History Museum, Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo Public Schools, Hodgson Russ law firm and the SPCA Serving Erie County, in addition to Montagnes of the Unitarian Universalist Church. Each representative placed a ribbon with an organization marker upon the wreath before making brief remarks.
The collective tributes made for a deft portrait of a multifaceted benefactor. Kate Funk, manager of membership and leadership annual giving at the Albright-Knox, described how Fillmore had presided over a meeting at the first gallery space in a rented loft in the Market Arcade Building downtown. Mary Jean Jakubowski, director of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, noted how Fillmore “was critical in establishing the Grosvenor Library’s first home in rented space on Lafayette Square. He had an essential hand in building Grosvenor’s collection at that time. … The Grosvenor Library collection has been used heavily in ongoing education by generations of Buffalonians.”
For his part, Jody Lomeo, president and CEO of Kaleida Health, said that “hundreds of thousands have been treated by institutions named for him and that he founded.” And Gary Willoughby, the SPCA’s new executive director, recounted Fillmore’s devotion to animal welfare, noting he was “adamant about horses not being mistreated …. and personally went out to educate drivers in the city.”
Kenneth P. Friedman, a partner with Hodgson Russ, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, neatly summed up the litany of tributes to a man who rose to great heights from impoverished beginnings. “He was a giant who had an impact on the region like no other before or since — from hospitals to libraries to cultural institutions to institutions of higher learning and others. Fillmore’s legacy in our community is profound.”
Following the playing of taps, attendees adjourned to a lunch and reception at the Buffalo Club, where Michael T. Genco, the club’s former president, memorialized Fillmore and gave an informal history of the club, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.