There Are Many Unrecognized Heroes Amongst Us

June 26, 2022 marked the 149th ‘opening day’ for the venerable Chautauqua Institution, a wonderful and uniquely American cultural treasure.

While its lecture series, musical performances and religious services are legendary, few know that it was founded in 1874 by an inventor and a Methodist bishop to educate Sunday school teachers.

It soon evolved into an immensely important cultural institution, and then a movement that sought to spread learning throughout the nation.

Chautauqua features everything from concerts and art exhibitions to lectures, and on Aug. 2, I’ll have the honor of lecturing there about a real American hero with huge, strong Chautauqua County roots, the early famous publisher, writer, and later candidate for President, Horace Greeley.

The Greeley family moved to plots of land just over the New York/Pennsylvania state line road south of Clymer in 1826, when Horace was 15. Their trip from Vermont has been chronicled in a short biography written about one of the women in the Greeley family, Esther, who talks about riding a canal boat from Schenectady to Buffalo, and going by wagon the rest of the way.

When they finally arrived, they say that mother Mary Woodburn Greeley cried for days at the sight of what was to be her home for the rest of her life.

The future founder and publisher of the New York Tribune followed his family to Chautauqua, walking the last 45 miles of so from the port at Dunkirk, through hooded paths in the woods of Fredonia, up the hills past the end of Chautauqua Lake, dodging the weeds that must have been there then as they are now.

Eventually, he got to Mayville which would become the county seat,and then Mina, then finally to Clymer and finally up the three miles up Spirit Hill to his father’s land. Greeley chronicled this walk in his autobiography, together with comments on ‘walking’ which, he said he preferred to do alone, so he could think, view and reflect.

Intrigued by how long a walk this was, a friend and I drove the walk young Horace took (as best we could, anyway) to reconstruct it. There are no ships save pleasure craft calling at the run-down port of Dunkirk now, but along the way we met incredible American heroes. I’d been in Mina Cemetery once before, but this time I knew that a true American hero, a Civil War U.S. Medal of Honor winner, Ebenezer Skellie is buried there.

We found his inconspicuous grave marker with an American flag blown by the wind as though an artist put it there.

Skellie was injured badly in a battle in September, 1864 at Chaffin’s farm in Virginia, being shot twice in the back and losing a leg. He was in Company D, 112th N.Y, as was my paternal great-grandfather. The company was ordered forward, and in crossing the James River, my great-grandfather was captured spending the last nine months of the war enduring the horrors of Libby Prison.

The rest of his company suffered massive losses, but pushed on to a fort, which they captured and held. Skellie survived to return to his farm in Mina, where he lived until 1898, the year the Spanish-American War began.

On June 26, the minister at the morning service was Mariann Edgar Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C. Coincidentally, I had known her early in her career, when she served in Toledo, so I was so delighted she could come to start Chautauqua’s 149th year. The title of her sermon, Stepping Up to the Plate was partially autobiographical: In June 2020, when a parish in her diocese had been partially damaged by rioters protesting the death of George Floyd, and former President Trump’s minions saw this as a photo op, she stepped up to the plate indeed.

Many remember the occasion; U.S. troops cleared the area with tear gas and Trump marched in with his supporting staff, held a Bible wrong side up, made a few remarks before hastily running back to the White House.

Bishop Budde was furious. In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper she expressed her outrage over the misuse of the sacred book to make a political point. That interview is well worth watching.

The bishop’s modest voice of sanity in a time of political turmoil didn’t need a carefully staged media event. She stepped to the plate and reacted from the depths of a true Christian and patriot responding to an inexcusable act of sacrilege by a President of the United States.

Bishop Budde did not face enemy rifles; but like the Civil War hero Ebenezer Skellie, whose body lies in a small Chautauqua County Cemetery a mere 15 miles or so , as measured by Horace Greeley’s walk, from where she stood she was an authentic American patriot.

She did not hesitate. Her palpable outrage spoke for all persons of faith everywhere. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson fought hard to keep church and state separate in our Constitution, and more than two centuries later, Bishop Mariann Budde took up their cause, daring to call down even a President of the United States for his sacrilegious — and unconstitutional — behavior.

She is a true hero, and a patriot, and I’m convinced Horace Greeley would have agreed. He’d say she’s a candidate for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University, and a former chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown.


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