I am a Volunteer

The office that the Rangers and some of the Volunteers use at James A. Garfield NHS accommodates 6 desks in relative comfort, even if Ranger Alan’s thermos occasionally ends up next to my keyboard. To look around the room, you may not think much of it. Ranger Mary’s small bulletin board has pictures of family and Ranger Joan has a picture of several local historic buildings hanging next to her desk. Otherwise the only thing on the walls is the board that posts the daily tour schedule, Rangers’ work schedules, and several other odds and ends, like a newspaper article quoting Betty White on why she’d like to be a Park Ranger someday (as if she hasn’t done enough in her life time). Though it should be pointed out that the simplicity of this room certain belies the amount of work and mischief that goes on inside its walls.

The room next door is the lunch room that doubles as the staff’s library and then triples as a little kitchenette. At any given time you might find Volunteer Interpreters in training, Rangers pouring over old Garfield family pictures trying to remember who-is-who, or on Saturdays Volunteer Rebecca eating her lunch and reading. The lunch table is strewn with books, brochures on other NPS sites, and the occasional baked good brought in by Rangers Mary, Allison, or Joan (which never lasts long anyway – being a Ranger is hungry work). The books in the book case are anything from diaries, biographies written by authors lost to time, books on other presidents, historic cookbooks, and even child- oriented education books. The book shelves on the opposite side of the room are littered with old floppy disks, VHS tapes, binders upon binders of photographs and house history, and of course a small station for the Volunteers to sign out their keys and radios for the day. The room is certainly clean of trash and debris, but the presence of all the historic material gives you the distinct impression that an important conversation about President Garfield’s life or times just occurred, leaving you to ponder what it might have been.

The National Park Service volunteer logo incorporates the agency's iconic "arrowhead" logo but is distinctive enough to generate pride in those who wear it.  (NPS image)

The National Park Service volunteer logo incorporates the agency’s iconic “arrowhead” logo but is distinctive enough to generate pride in those who wear it. (NPS image)

And of course going downstairs brings us to one of the most important aspects of what any of us do here: the visitors. Our visitors range in age from babes with pacifiers to grandparents in walkers, and come from every walk of life you can imagine: a family driving across the country touring our National Parks; a couple from out of state attending a wedding with time to kill; two young couples on a “lunch and learn” double date; an elderly couple who’ve lived in Mentor for “longer than you think” and have never been to the President’s house before; a woman who used to work at a museum in New York and recently moved here; and so many more. Sometimes they’re so excited to be here that the questions start in the book store – which book is the best, where is Garfield buried, and can I get this cute t-shirt in a smaller size? Some visitors are stoic, taking in the exhibits and reading the signs quietly to themselves. Others might not have a passion for history and have accompanied a friend or family member – but that doesn’t mean we don’t try and excite them anyway! We want nothing more than for you to share our love of history and ask a question or two.

When there aren’t any visitors around, though, we are left to reflect and perform our individual tasks in an environment almost staggering to anyone who enjoys times gone by. Sometimes you can hear a pin drop as Ranger Alan works on his next talk while Ranger Scott plans the next Civil War Encampment and Volunteer Andrew gets together details for the next “Friends of James A. Garfield NHS” group meeting. Meanwhile, I sneak around with my camera, snapping pictures of the President’s home, the occasional squirrel, and whatever Ranger or Volunteer I can surprise. Other times though the atmosphere is crackling with conversation. Stimulating discussion about what we think Garfield’s opinion may or may not have been on a given topic… or maybe how frustrating the last Indians game was to watch. There’s never a lack of information to absorb!

Some days here can be aptly described as controlled chaos. With visitors coming and going, Volunteers guiding tours, and Rangers and Administrative staff handling the day-to-day operations, there’s always something going on. But that’s why the word “controlled” is more important than “chaos”. Because it’s certainly not directionless energy. There might be a new exhibit going up. A new program being announced. Or maybe even a Garfield family member coming in today. And while I can’t think of one good word to describe it, the staff has managed to cobble together a feeling of sober joviality. An oxymoron perhaps, that fits because our whole situation here is a bit of an oxymoron. After all, aren’t most historians supposed to be stuffy types, looking down their noses at you through their spectacles (never glasses)? Not outgoing, witty jokesters.

Volunteers perform a wide range of duties at James A. Garfield NHS.  Here, Volunteer Dave Lintern (left) leads a presidential trivia game for kids during a recent Presidents Day event.  (NPS image)

Volunteers perform a wide range of duties at James A. Garfield NHS. Here, Volunteer Dave Lintern (left) leads a presidential trivia game for kids during a recent Presidents Day event. (NPS image)

Who am I to make these observations? I am a Volunteer. I’ve learned over time that this means different things to different people. For some, a volunteer is that guy in the yellow vest that waves you into the parking lot at a church carnival. Or maybe that lady at the hospital who tells you where the bathroom is. For me, volunteering is much more than that. After all, what resource is more precious than time itself? We can’t get it back when we give it… we never seem to have enough… and it always seems to fly by. I give of my time freely for the benefit of those I interact with: the visitors and the Rangers and the other Volunteers. It’s safely said that all of us here are very much people-oriented and love a good conversation with anyone – whether you’re asking about how James A. Garfield died or perhaps where is the nearest restaurant. And the Rangers… well, they’re a special group that I, for one, feel privileged to know. I’ve never met a group of people so determined to do so much with what little they have to work with. And they keep positive. Educate. Laugh. And move on.

If you’ve never experienced what it is like to volunteer your time to a worthy cause, I encourage you to do so. To feel like what you did, by your own choice, without the motivation of money, did some good somewhere. Where a compliment from a visitor is worth more than your job could pay you. Where the feeling of accomplishment when the day is done makes it all worthwhile. And the appreciation you feel for having given of yourself brings you back to do it all over again.

James A. Garfield NHS Volunteers often take field trips to other local attractions and museums to see how other facilities operate.  Here, Volunteers join a Park Ranger on a visit to various locations around the city of Mentor, Ohio.  (NPS image)

James A. Garfield NHS Volunteers often take field trips to other local attractions and museums to see how other facilities operate. Here, Volunteers join a Park Ranger on a visit to various locations around the city of Mentor, Ohio. (NPS image)

And so from my computer in the office, with Ranger Alan’s thermos at my elbow, and Ranger Joan discussing the highlights of the last Browns game, I proudly say:

I am a Volunteer.

-Andy Curtiss, Volunteer

Why We Laugh

Good friends and casual visitors often remarked about James Garfield’s passion for books and their contents. A visitor to the Congressman’s home on I Street in Washington, D.C.:

“The books… overflowed the library. And undoubtedly the overflow has been regular, as you can go nowhere in the general’s home without coming face to face with books. They confront you in the hall when you enter, in the parlor and the sitting room, in the dining-room and even in the bath-room, where documents and speeches are corded up like firewood.” (quoted in Leech & Brown, The Garfield Orbit, p.182-183)

Garfield’s life-long friend Burke Hinsdale described his reading habits:

“In his later years, he read everywhere—on the cars, in the omnibus, and after retiring at night. If he was leaving Washington for a few days, and had nothing requiring immediate attention on hand, he would go to the great Library of Congress and say to the librarian, ‘Mr. Spofford, give me something that I don’t know anything about.’ A stray book coming to him in this way would often lead to a special study of the subject.” (quoted in TC Smith, James Abram Garfield, Life and Letters, p. 747)

And in the spring of 1881:

Visitors noticed that the White House now seemed filled with books: “Everywhere—in every nook and corner,” a reporter wrote. “A case in the parlor contains editions of Waverly [sic—referring to the Waverly novels by Sir Walter Scott.] and Dickens,” along with “French history in the original, old English poets and dramatists richly bound in black and gold” in the hallways and dining room. (Kenneth D. Ackerman, Dark Horse, p. 322)

Now, all those books (except, we hope, for the ones borrowed from the “Congressional Library” as Garfield called it) fill the shelves of the President’s home in Mentor, Ohio. The Waverly novels are in the parlor, Dickens is in the boys’ room. About half of the books are in the Memorial Library—an eclectic collection that includes law, religion and philosophy, political history and biography, poetry, and interesting titles like Hygiene of the Brain, Mizpah, and Natural Laws of Husbandry. On a low shelf in a corner hides Why We Laugh, by S. S. Cox.

Samuel S. Cox, Congressman from both Ohio and New York during his career, presented this copy of his book "Why We Laugh" to his House of Representatives colleague James A. Garfield in 1876.  It is now on the shelves of the Memorial Library in the Garfield home here at James A. Garfield National Historic Site. (National Park Service)

Samuel S. Cox, Congressman from both Ohio and New York during his career, presented this copy of his book “Why We Laugh” to his House of Representatives colleague James A. Garfield in 1876. It is now on the shelves of the Memorial Library in the Garfield home at James A. Garfield National Historic Site. (National Park Service)

Samuel S. Cox was born in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1824; practiced law in Cincinnati; edited the Ohio Statesman in Columbus; and served as a Democratic Member of Congress from the Columbus area for four terms, from 1857 to 1865. Outspokenly opposed to the Civil War, and to President Lincoln, Cox’s political fortunes in Ohio waned, and he moved to New York. Democrats in New York elected him to Congress in 1868, and he served there until 1883. So, Cox served alongside James Garfield in the House of Representatives for fourteen years. On March 29, 1876, Mr. Cox presented Gen. J.A. Garfield with a copy of Why We Laugh.

Perhaps to impress his readers with his scholarship, Cox begins his book with a classical definition of humor. “Humor, in its literal meaning, is moisture. Its derived sense is different; but while it is now a less sluggish element than moisture, we still associate with humor some of its old relations. In old times, physicians reckoned several kinds of moisture in the human body—phlegm, blood, choler, and melancholy. They found one vein particularly made for a laugh to run in, the blood of which, being stirred, the man laughed, even if he felt like crying…” It quickly becomes apparent that the “We” in Cox’s title refers to Americans in general and legislators in particular.

Samuel S. Cox was born in Zanesville, Ohio.  He served in the House as a Demoract and was vocally opposed to both the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln.  He and James A. Garfield were Congressional colleagues and social friends in Washington, D.C.  (National Archives and Records Administration)

Samuel S. Cox was born in Zanesville, Ohio. He served in the House as a Democrat and was vocally opposed to both the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln. He and James A. Garfield were Congressional colleagues and social friends in Washington, D.C. (National Archives and Records Administration)

He asserts repeatedly that American humor is based most often on exaggeration. “The Declaration of Independence is a splendid exaggeration…’all men are created equal’…’all government derives its powers from the consent of the governed’…With such a chart[er], and with such a grand initial momentum, need we wonder at the magnitude of our ideas, the magniloquence of our orators, and the exaggerations of our humor? Our large lakes, our long rivers, our mountain ranges, our mammoth conifers, our vast mineral treasures, our wide prairies, our great crops, our growing cities, our enlarging territory, our unrivaled telegraphs, our extensive railroads and their equally extensive disasters, our mechanical skill and its infinite production, our unexampled civil unpleasantness and its results, would seem to call for an aggrandized view of our political and social position, and, as a consequence, for a broad, big, Brobdingnagian humor.”

Eighteen of Cox’s twenty-five chapters are about legislative humor. Filled with quotes, quips and epigrams, it is quite apparent that Cox found his colleagues to be his most important source of material; this volume is a classic study in the fine Washington art of name dropping. Garfield’s name only appears a few times, most notably in the chapter called Legislative Retort and Repartee: “ It was a railroad grant. ‘Where is all this to lead?’ exclaimed Washburne. ‘To the Pacific coast,’ said Garfield. ‘To the bottom of the treasury rather,’ was the prompt rejoinder.” It doesn’t seem to me that Garfield was an active participant in the repartee. I wonder if every man named between the covers of Why We Laugh received a signed copy.

James A. Garfield had a good sense of humor and loved to laugh.  This image can be found in the exhibits at James A. Garfield NHS and show the future President of the United States laughing and rolling on the ground with his son and a family friend.  (National Park Service)

James A. Garfield had a good sense of humor and loved to laugh. This image can be found in the exhibits at James A. Garfield NHS and show the future President of the United States laughing and rolling on the ground while his friend Charles Henry and Henry’s son laugh with him. (National Park Service)

Were Cox and Garfield friends? In his diary Garfield mentions a number of dinners with other members of Congress, including S. S. Cox. And he notes, “Some of the best men socially in Congress are political adversaries.” But the journals also indicate that in the work of Congress, Garfield found amusement in different places than Cox.

Tuesday, March 5, 1872: On the Judicial Fund a brisk debate sprung up, which drifted off into questions of Ku Klux, in which an amusing passage at arms occurred between Cox of N.Y. and Rainey, a colored member from South Carolina. Cox got the worst of it.

Wednesday, February 9, 1876: In the House the debate continued on the Diplomatic Appropriations Bill and nothing was accomplished. Springer if Illinois and Cox of N.Y. attempted to make fun of the Diplomatic Service and got off a good deal of stale wit, with a little that was bright.

Monday, November 19, 1877: The day was spent on the Paris Exposition Bill. Cox made a carefully prepared speech devoted to witticisms, pleasant to hear but very uncomfortable for the man who indulges in it. I do not believe it is possible for such a man to have a pleasant reputation for good judgment.

This last is after Garfield accepted Cox’s book. Had he read it? Does this entry reflect Garfield’s reaction to Cox’s thesis, or is it more a comment on their political differences?

Samuel S. Cox's message and signature in the copy of "Why We Laugh" he presented to James A. Garfield on March 29, 1876.  (National Park Service)

Samuel S. Cox’s message and signature in the copy of “Why We Laugh” he presented to James A. Garfield on March 29, 1876. (National Park Service)

House colleagues and social friends, Cox and Garfield seem to have had very different senses of humor. Toward the end of his book, Mr. Cox finally explains why he feels levity is so important to legislating:

“Our enjoyments in this life should antedate our future bliss. We have enough clouds of sorrow here. Let us fringe their dark edges with sunshine. Let us mellow and brighten them for the solace of others, if not for the joy of our own heart. Grief and melancholy are selfish. All nature calls for hilarity…In that province of human activity in which life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the ostensible objects of guarantee—the province of statesmanship—where the collisions of prejudice, interest, and passion are in constant debate, while there may be no need for the cap and bells of the fool or the acrobatic entertainment of the harlequin and clown, there is ever an urgency for those gifts which cheer, brighten, and bless, and which suffuse through society their soft radiance like the sweet, hallowing influences of sunset.”

Perhaps Mr. Garfield could agree with that.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide