Bow ties were abundant at the James A. Garfield Presidential dollar
coin launch Nov. 17 at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in
The bow ties were worn in the late president’s honor by members of
Garfield’s family who traveled from near and far for the unveiling of
the 20th Presidential dollar coin in crisp late autumn sunshine.
“My father always wore a bow tie,” said Garfield’s great-grandson,
83-year-old Rudolph Garfield, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, who spoke
during the coin launch on behalf of his family. “It goes back generations.”
The Garfield family was among several hundred people crowded into
a heated tent erected on the expansive north lawn of the Garfield
National Historic Site to watch history in the making two days shy of
Garfield’s 180th birthday.
Following a succession of speakers, including Garfield, acting
Associate Director for Manufacturing at the U.S. Mint J. Marc Landry
described the nation’s 20th president — the last one born in a log
cabin — as a self-made man, the perfect example of a leader who helped
shape our country’s values and character.
Then he poured from a small black bucket about 500 shiny Garfield
The culmination of the hour-long coin launch, the “coin pour” has
become a tradition of Presidential dollar launches since they began in
2007 with the first coin honoring George Washington.
That the Nov. 17 event was the 20th such dollar coin launch made
it no less special for the guests or the presenters. Federal, state
and local dignitaries took turns at the podium. The historic site’s
chief of interpretation and education, Todd Arrington, served as emcee.
“We feel it’s an honor to be stewards of this historic site. To
see Garfield recognized this way as a president is wonderful,” noted
Sherda Williams, historic site manager, who decided to erect the tent
after realizing that the site’s 40-seat auditorium would never
accommodate such a large crowd. “President Garfield was a wonderful
person. It’s a tragedy his life was cut short.”
Lightheartedly referred to as “the oldest Garfield we know” by
Arrington, Rudolph Garfield told the crowd that he visits the site for
almost every occasion it hosts, and that he was honored to attend the
coin launch at a site where he and his cousins cultivated happy
memories. Garfield family members participated in many coin launch
“I take the liberty on behalf of the family, in absentia, of
thanking those who produced this coin,” Garfield said.
Then keynote speaker Dr. Allan Peskin, professor emeritus of
Cleveland State University and author of the definitive Garfield
biography, Garfield, made believers out of anyone who doubted
that a president in office just 220 days — 80 of them on his deathbed
— should be entitled to a Presidential coin.
“Is Garfield entitled to this?” he asked, in his speech, “Is
Garfield Worth A Dollar? Reflections on the Man and the Coin.”
“He was shot six months into office. The House of Representatives
was not in session at the time, and no legislation could be proposed
or passed. One of his appointees to public office led to a struggle
that threatened the Republican Party. In fact, some referred to him as
a ‘cipher,’ something echoed by subsequent historians. He was never
going to be sculpted on Mt. Rushmore, and some might have thought that
a silver dime might be a more fitting memorial,” Peskin said.
But Peskin said that Garfield was not about to be “short-changed.”
“It’s true that he had meager accomplishments, but in those days,
Americans did not expect their presidents to make a difference in
their lives. They just expected them to keep things moving,” he said.
“Most Americans, including Garfield, had a suspicion of centralized
power, and just wanted the government to ‘keep the peace.’ ”
Peskin said the man who was president in an era when the federal
government touched citizens’ only via mail, land sales and meager
taxes collected through customs’ duties had a tremendous impact on
Born in a log cabin in northeast Ohio, raised and supported by a
widowed mother, self-educated to become a preacher and president of
Hiram College in his 20s, a man who raised a Civil War regiment and
became the Union’s youngest major general, then went on to Congress to
become master of financial legislation, Garfield became the Republican
Party’s presidential nominee in 1880 after it became deadlocked.
Peskin said that Garfield did much of his campaigning on the front
porch of his Mentor home, and, “noting his warmth,” 80 percent of the
registered voters participated in the 1880s election.
“A needle could scarcely find space between him and his Democratic
rival,” he added.
Less than six months into office, on July 2, 1881, Garfield was
shot. When he died two months later, Peskin said the outpouring of
mourners was significant. Some 100,000 Clevelanders witnessed the
“Why, if he were an ‘insignificant’ president?” Peskin asked.
“His is a remarkable story,” he concluded. “His life story burned
into their consciousness. He wove the symbols of home, mother, school,
church, flag to remind his countrymen of the highest aspirations. It
was a comfort that traditional values could bring success. He mastered
new challenges, and when he died, Americans mourned the best of themselves.”
Before leaving the podium, Peskin offered one piece of advice.
“Don’t stuff the coin in your pocket. Hold it in your hand as a
symbol of simpler days, the American Dream,” he said.
In commemoration of Garfield’s 180th birthday on Nov. 19, a
12.5-mile hike took place from Garfield’s birthplace to his resting
place at Cleveland’s Lakeview Cemetery. A Garfield Coin Show was held
at the Radisson Hotel in neighboring Eastlake.
Following the Nov. 17 program, attendees were invited to
refreshments and tours of the Garfield home. Though visitors were
invited to trade Federal Reserve notes for new Garfield coins in $25
rolls, those seeking coins in smaller quantities had to wait until the
next day to trade in their currency at a local credit union.
Genevieve Billia, of the U.S. Mint, who passed out the coins to
children 18 and under, said the Mint is proceeding with plans to
produce four more coins in 2012, honoring the 21st through 24th
presidents, starting with Grover Cleveland, despite a bill introduced
to end the minting of the coins by those who assert they are a waste
Indeed, Peskin said that Garfield would have been delighted to be
honored by the Presidential dollar coin.
“It wasn’t that he wanted his face on a coin, because he was free
of vanity,” he said. “It was because he considered paperbacks, or
‘greenbacks,’ as lies of the government, and he labored to make them
redeemable in specie. This is a fitting tribute to that struggle.” ■