Published December 12, 2013
Not many — if any — universities honor their founders or first presidents with a graveside ceremony in the dead of winter.
UB’s annual Millard Fillmore commemoration is one of those uniquely UB traditions. Every year, faculty, staff, some students, administrators and friends of the university gather on Jan. 7 at Fillmore’s gravesite in Forest Lawn cemetery in Buffalo to mark the birthday of UB’s first chancellor, who also happens to be the 13th president of the United States and the founder of many Buffalo institutions, like the Buffalo History Museum and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Attendance at the event is viewed as a sort of university rite of passage — it’s usually very cold, the ground is snow-covered and a brisk wind whips through the gravesite, located at one of the highest points in the historic cemetery. Following the ceremony, participants adjourn for a reception featuring cider and donuts. For many years the reception was held in a mausoleum; it recently was moved to the Forest Lawn Chapel, not far from the gravesite.
The memorial address at the ceremony traditionally is delivered by a UB administrator — oftentimes the administrator most recently hired. But the remarks at the 2014 Fillmore commemoration are being delivered by longtime UB political science faculty member Claude E. Welch Jr., who says he may well be “the first recidivist in the history of the remarks.”
That’s because Welch gave the remarks at the 1968 Fillmore commemoration. At the time, he was a young faculty member who also served as dean of University College —a position, he says, that’s comparable to today’s vice provost for undergraduate education.
“I was, and still remain, a political scientist,” he says, so he was a “logical choice” to give the remarks at the event.
Welch, a SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and internationally known authority on human rights, African politics and civil-military relations, says speaking at the upcoming Fillmore commemoration will be a memorable way to mark the beginning of his 50th year at the university — he joined the UB faculty as an assistant professor in August 1964 after earning his doctorate from Oxford University that same year.
He says he’s honored to be giving the memorial address, which over the years has been given by numerous high-ranking UB administrators, among them vice presidents, deans, provosts and even a president — John B. Simpson delivered the remarks in 2011.
Welch remembers that day in 1968 as being particularly cold. “Reporters were there, and perhaps a photographer. They sat in their heated cars, with the engines running, waiting for a carbon copy of my speech,” he says. There also was “a chilly bugler,” he says, as well as a minister who gave an invocation.
He says he talked about the political climate during Fillmore’s term as president from 1850-53, and the impact of what is widely considered to be Fillmore’s lackluster performance as president, adding that in preparing his talk he had consulted a biography of Fillmore obtained from the UB Libraries.
Welch says that while hasn’t decided on a specific top for this January’s address, he recently audited history professor Carole Emberton’s class on the Civil War. The class, he says, was excellent. “I learned an extraordinary amount about this cataclysmic period in U.S. history. I expect to utilize that knowledge in my remarks.”
And if needed, there’s a certain biography in the UB Libraries that might be helpful.
Elaine and I applaud your stick-to-itiveness for hanging out with UB for 50 years! Wish we could be with you in the flesh, but Florida's warmth is too seductive! Be well, and make Millard proud!
I think Claude deserves an oil painting to be hung in an appropriate place at UB to revive a tradition of honoring faculty who have served the university in many important ways over the years.
This seems especially important to me in the age of social media when "instant" recognition gets more attention than the legacy of a lifetime. I only taught 40 years full-time at UB and seven more so far as an adjunct. If I can hang in for three more years, I'll request a drawing, but only if Claude gets the real canvas.
Claude, you are a role model to many of us emeritus professors. Keep moving.