OUS trip focuses on Ohio presidents
"The best adjective for them is that they were mediocre."
And with that, long-time Ohio University Southern history instructor Bob Leith summed up the eight Buckeye Boys who ascended to the highest political office in the land.
"The best thing you can say about the Ohio presidents is that most of them have a singular thing people know them for," Leith said from the back of the chartered bus as it crisscrossed the state of Ohio.
The tour was dubbed "State of Eight" which focused on the Ohio men who became U.S. presidents - William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft and Warren G. Harding.
The trip was one of OUS' Education on Location programs which combine the university's travel and tourism program with other disciplines to take students - and non-students - to learn on location at historic sites.
"We certainly ought to brag because we have seven presidents born here and one transplant.
"Like Gerald Ford once said, 'I'm not a Lincoln, I'm a Ford,'" Leith said. "I think we've got a lot of Chevys here."
During stops along the 883 miles traveled during the three-day weekend earlier this month, Leith shared his thoughts about the presidents with the nearly two-dozen participants in the trip.
From the early days of an amazingly short (one-month) presidency of famed Indian fighter William Henry Harrison who caught a deadly cold giving his inaugural address to the scandalously corrupt "return to normalcy" administration of Warren G. Harding, Leith covered them all.
The people filling the rows of the "State of Eight" bus tour came to their seats for different reasons.
Several were teachers looking to either learn a few things to share with their students, some sought to earn continuing education credit to renew their teaching certificates.
A few were Ohio University students seeking to gain some history credits.
Although the Education on Location trips are open to almost anyone, whether a student at OUS or not, Leith says his primary goal is to educate his students.
"I got on this bus because I wanted people like Steve Shaffer and Don Turner to experience this," he said. Shaffer and Turner were both taking the trip to earn college credit hours, which will require both to be evaluated by Leith to determine if each "passed" the trip For Steve and Nichole Hicks, dubbed "the newlyweds" by others on the trip, the pair, actually married for 21 years, said traveling with OUS is the only way to go.
"It's amazing the stuff you have in Ohio that you didn't know about," Steve Hicks said.
"Every summer we try to do some kind of trip," Nichole Hicks said. "I didn't realize how little I did know (about the Ohio presidents). I was very impressed with what some of them did."
The Hicks also sang the praises of Steve Call, the director of OUS' Travel and Tourism degree program.
"He is an excellent tour guide," Steve Hicks said.
For Mary Frances Near of Ironton, the draw was just the chance to learn a bit more of her profession and her passion - history. Near teaches U.S. history in the Ironton City School system.
"I love history," she said. "I know the dates, but this kind of fleshes it out to see their homes, the way they lived. There's always more to learn about them."
Near said despite fears that riding across the state on a bus would be uncomfortable and grow old quickly, she has experienced quite the opposite.
"I think when you hear 'bus tour' it's a little disconcerting," she said. "This is different. It's really effortless."
Chesapeake Middle School English teacher Karen Musser has been on several trips through OUS, but said she thinks the "State of Eight" was tops.
"Actually, of all that I've taken, I think this was the best," Musser said. "I've looked forward to it all summer."
Musser said one of the biggest draws to her is hearing the stories of her former university professor, Bob Leith.
"There is so much that's not in the books. It's all that interesting little tidbit stuff that he brings," she said. "I don't know where he gets it all, but it's very interesting and truthful."
Ohio is second only to Virginia in the number of native sons who became America's leaders.
But while many of Virginia's presidents are ranked among the most famous - George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for instance - Ohio's are largely mostly unremarkable.
"Most of them are considered Gilded Age presidents, from Reconstruction to 1900," Leith said. "But you know, it's not easy to be the president of the United States."
Of the eight, four died in office, two at the hands of assassins - James A. Garfield and William McKinley.
"Of course Americans will sympathize more with the ones who were assassinated," Leith said.
Charles Guiteau shot President Garfield July 2, 1881. Garfield lived 79 days before finally succumbing to his wounds. He is buried in picturesque Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.
"He was called the preacher president," Leith said. "He was ordained in the Disciples of Christ Church. He used to amaze people. He would sit down and write in Latin with one hand and Greek in the other.
"(Garfield) lived for 79 days after the shooting," Leith said. "Guiteau was hanged. Someone said, 'We took his life in a few seconds, but what he put Garfield through was pure hell.'"
McKinley was shot by Leon F. Czolgosz, an anarchist, Sept. 6, 1901, while the president attended the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y. He died a few days later.
"I've often felt like if you lined them up and each lived through their full term, William McKinley would come out on top," Leith said. "It was because of him that we went abroad and came up with land holdings through the Spanish-American War."
Spoils of corruption
"Up until recently, they have always said, 'Flip a coin to see who was the worst president - Grant or Harding,'" Leith said. "If you judge what happened in their terms and realize neither one initially knew what was going on in their administrations, things change a little."
The Great Union Civil War General, turned president, U.S. Grant was more comfortable in the saddle than in the White House, Leith said.
"He was probably the greatest horseman the presidency ever produced," he said. "Grant didn't die in office, but he probably wishes he would have. It was the most corrupt time in our history."
Leith said Warren G. Harding might have been, "the most human of all our presidents."
"Warren Harding was sought out by a lot of women," Leith said. "He conceived an illegitimate child in the cloak room of the U.S. Senate.
"The daughter, Annie, wrote a book called 'The President's Daughter' about (Harding and her mother's) exploits," Leith said. "This is something like you'd see on 'Jerry Springer' or something.
"He loved poker, golf and horse shoes more than he loved being president."
Harding's administration was riddled with corruption, Leith said.
"He met a guy on vacation who was liar and the guy told him he was a great war hero," Leith said. "(Harding) made him head of the Veteran's Services.
"The man stole over $250 million."
"When they were considering Harding for a presidential run, they brought him in and they said, 'Sen. Harding, have you ever done anything in your life that would reflect badly upon our party?'" Leith said. "He said, 'No, I haven't done anything.'
"He's like Bill Clinton," Leith said. "'I didn't have sex with that woman. I might have had pizza with her, though.'"
Leith described President Taft as "the Kissinger for (Teddy) Roosevelt's presidency" and William Henry Harrison as "a great Indian fighter."
Ohio's presidents may have been "Chevys" but they were certainly one-of-a-kind models.