Published January 14, 2013
Uncharacteristic for Buffalo in January, the sun broke through the clouds in Forest Lawn Cemetery, shining down on a gathering of citizens, UB staff and regional officials during the 48th public commemoration of Millard Fillmore’s birthday—it would have been his 213th—on Jan. 7.
Fillmore, the 13th president of the U.S., also served a key role in establishing the young city of Buffalo and the University of Buffalo.
Born in 1800 in Moravia, N.Y., Fillmore served in Congress and as vice president under Zachary Taylor from 1849-50, then as president from 1850-53. He also served as UB’s first chancellor, from the university’s founding in 1846 until his death in 1874.
Early in his career, Fillmore helped launch a thousand ships of sorts here in Buffalo, establishing the local school system and fire department, the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (now called the Buffalo History Museum), the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy (now the Albright-Knox Art Gallery), the local chapter of the ASPCA and the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, in addition to serving as New York State comptroller and a member of the state Assembly.
Nearly 200 years later, the UB Police Color Guard stood at attention with U.S., state and UB flags as several speakers came forward at Fillmore’s gravesite to pay their respects.
William Regan, director of special events at UB, gave opening remarks, followed by an invocation by The Rev. Margret O’Neall of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo.
Col. Kevin Rogers of the 107th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard based at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station placed a wreath from the White House at Fillmore’s grave marker, located high on a small hill within the peaceful cemetery.
Wreaths also placed were by Davis Pfalzgraf Jr., president of the Buffalo Club; Holly Donaldson, chairman of the Forest Lawn Heritage Foundation Board of Trustees; and Larry Gingrich, associate dean for Millard Fillmore College at UB—a school bearing Fillmore’s name that was established, like the rest of the university, to give members of the community access to educational opportunities.
Also in attendance were members of the Abigail Fillmore Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution; students and teachers from East Aurora’s Mandala School, a K-8 charter school located down the street from Fillmore’s family home; and current and former UB students, staff and friends.
Charles Zukoski, UB provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, delivered the memorial address. His speech examined Fillmore’s description of UB as a “literary institution” during the university’s first commencement ceremony back in 1847, when UB was a private medical school.
Zukoski quoted Fillmore as saying that UB was “destined to shed literary and scientific blessings, not only on the youth of our own prosperous city, but upon those of the surrounding country and adjacent states.” By “literary,” Zukoski explained, Fillmore referenced a broader meaning of the word—that of “respecting learning or learned men”—than what is known today. “It is easy to imagine that Millard Fillmore would delight in the comprehensive institution UB has become,” Zukoski said.
Having once said that UB would grow to become the “pride and ornament of our city,” Fillmore, Zukoski added, surely understood how “arts and sciences mingle together to form the foundation of democracy.”
Zukoski’s address also touched on Fillmore’s complex legacy as a leader, from his many good works and extensive civic contributions throughout Western New York, to the controversial Compromise of 1850 legislation that he passed soon after becoming president. While the compromise admitted California to the union as a free state and abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia, it also included the Fugitive Slave Act, which required northerners to return escaped black men and women to slavery.
The ceremony closed with taps performed by MBA student West Richter. At a reception afterward in the Forest Lawn chapel, cocoa and coffee warmed fingers and toes as the crowd gathered in the cozy space.
Zukoski greeted attendees by the fireplace and was enthusiastic about the morning’s proceedings. “This is about pride; it speaks to this city’s pride in so many things and to Buffalo’s deep roots in national politics and its early leadership in industry,” he said.
The Association for a Buffalo Presidential Center, a newly chartered group advocating for the study and appreciation of Western New York’s contributions to presidential and national affairs, presented a small exhibit of Fillmore memorabilia at the chapel. Presidents Fillmore, Cleveland, McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt all have Buffalo connections.
Josie Morrissey, a 6th-grader at the Mandala School, said this was her second year attending the event. “I didn’t know much about Millard Fillmore at first, but we’ve been talking about him in history class. It’s been fun,” she said.