Published January 10, 2014
His audience of about 30 people shivering in Thursday’s frosty air, Claude Welch, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Political Science, artfully connected themes of history and education in delivering the annual Millard Fillmore commemoration address at the burial site of the nation’s 13th president, who also was UB’s first chancellor and a prodigious contributor to Buffalo’s cultural and civic life.
The spirit of the ceremony, a staple of UB and Buffalo life for decades, is not easily summarized for the uninitiated. It always involves the placing of wreaths from the university and the White House, a presentation of colors, an invocation and, most notably, an address memorializing Fillmore on his birthday. Standing together, huddled in the cold, is almost always a key feature as well.
Speakers extoling Fillmore’s contributions have ranged from UB presidents to noted professors and administrators, whether new on campus or long part of the campus community. This year offered several features that made it particularly memorable. For one thing, the event had been postponed from Tuesday — Fillmore’s 214th birthday — in the wake of a blizzard that briefly gripped the region.
For another, Welch was making a return appearance 46 years after he gave the Millard Fillmore address as a young political science professor who’d joined the faculty only four years earlier. Further adding to the special qualities of this year’s program, Welch’s wife, Jeannette Choho Ludwig, associate professor of romance languages and literatures, gave the invocation as a Buddhist practitioner and a student of the Zen Mountain Monastery.
In fact, explained Bill Regan, director of special events, Welch was delivering this year’s address to help mark his 50th year as a UB professor. Regan — a polished pro at running the annual Fillmore ceremony with efficiency and reverence for both subject and ceremonial ritual — pointed out Welch’s special qualifications for making this year’s address. Had he been making introductions for Welch back in 1968, Regan said, he would have described the young professor as clearly up and coming, armed with degrees from Harvard and Oxford universities.
But introducing Welch in 2014 was far more demanding, said Regan, who described Welch’s prodigious record of scholarship as a widely respected authority on human rights, African politics and civil-military relations —he is the author of 14 books with a 15th is underway — as well as his university service that “sets him apart” from other distinguished academics.
Welch only occasionally glanced at his prepared remarks, instead choosing to deliver his speech robustly and in a manner that kept his audience in rapt attention amid the shivers. In the process, Welch wove a story of Fillmore’s humble origins in rural Cayuga County, relaying how his small-town values and commitment to education — even when pursued informally as an autodidact — informed his presidency and later his role as UB chancellor and Buffalo community leader.
Throughout his remarks, Welch connected Fillmore’s political decisions and his character with his rural upbringing and ardent pursuit of an education amid strained family economics. Strikingly, Welch observed, “Fillmore bloomed where he was planted,” returning to Western New York after his presidency to carve out a record of community service that even active modern ex-presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton might find hard to equal.
In addition to serving for nearly 30 years as UB chancellor, Fillmore helped found the Buffalo History Museum, commanded a group of military volunteers during the Civil War and helped to create what is now the Albright-Knox Art Gallery along with Buffalo General Hospital and the Buffalo Club. “No wonder,” joked Welch, “that Buffalonians speak of ‘The Millard’ just as we refer to ‘Stella,’ ‘The Grover’ and, of course, ‘The Ralph.’”
And, as befitting a political scientist and eminent scholar, Welch reminded his audience of the remarkable comparisons between Fillmore’s world and our own. “Barack Obama, our 43rd president, has a background, as the son of an African, which Millard would have deemed impossible. American has become transformed beyond Fillmore’s dreams.”
Also placing wreaths, in addition to UB and the White House, were representatives of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, the Buffalo Club and Forest Lawn cemetery. UB student Matthew J. Caputy played taps, always so plaintive and affecting, before attendees adjourned to a reception in the Forest Lawn Chapel.
I had a class or two with Prof. Welch back in '74-'76. Great to see he is still going strong!