George Washington, say who?

Posted: Feb 25, 2005 12:00 AM

Mount Vernon, Va. ? President?s Day came and went as it usually does -- without much notice and little attention to the man whose birthday makes February?s three-day weekend possible.

For those stumped by the riddle, that man would be George Washington, also known as the father of our country and our first president.

Those not stumped are probably thinking, ?This is ridiculous,? and wondering, ?Who doesn?t know that?? Would that they were right. Alas, the un-stumped are vastly outnumbered by the perplexed, who arrive in droves each year looking for Mt. Rushmore.

That?s not a joke, though our education system surely is. Others who visit here ? some 75,000 annually ? frequently stop one of the historical interpreters roaming the estate grounds to ask about the Civil War.

What? Washington liberated the slaves, right?

Well, yes, he did liberate his own slaves upon his death, but many visitors here don?t know that. Rather they?re clearly confusing Washington with Abraham Lincoln, who is far more famous these days than the general who was instrumental in making ?freedom? a word his American progeny are privileged to take for granted.

Tests, surveys and studies further confirm America?s increasing ignorance. A test of high school seniors, for example, found that only one in ten was proficient in American history. A survey of fourth graders found that seven of ten thought the original 13 colonies included Illinois, Texas and California.

Six of ten couldn?t say why the Pilgrims came to America. Only seven percent of fourth graders could name ?an important event? that took place in Philadelphia in 1776. When seniors at the nation?s top 55 universities were asked to name America?s victorious general at the Battle of Yorktown, only 34 percent named George Washington.

These depressing statistics, which Mount Vernon executive director James Rees rattles off with thinly disguised ennui, shouldn?t be surprising considering that Washington today receives one-tenth the coverage in textbooks that he received 30 years ago. Rees tells of one textbook that offers fewer than 50 lines of text about Washington, but 213 about Marilyn Monroe.

Meanwhile, the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, a reproduction of which used to hang in nearly every American classroom, is long gone. As is the historical background and context critical to future generations? conduct of the nation?s business.

One might easily despair were it not for the passion of a small cavalry of bejeweled and bedazzled ladies who - as one of them put it at a recent black-tie birthday dinner party in the first president?s honor - ?just want everyone to love George as much as we do!?

Meet the Mount Vernon Ladies? Association of the Union, a select and serious sorority of no-nonsense history buffs, without whom Mt. Vernon would not exist. Now more than 150 years old, the association began with a woman famous in these parts - Ann Pamela Cunningham of South Carolina - who decided to save the house after her mother reported its dilapidated condition in a letter.

?I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington,? wrote Mrs. Cunningham. ?And the thought passed through my mind: Why was it that the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it??

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Whereupon, the younger Cunningham founded the Association in 1863 and, together with a group of ladies (today?s Vice Regents), raised $200,000 to buy the mansion and 200 acres of surrounding land, which subsequent generations have helped restore to their original state.

Today, Cunningham?s soul sisters are continuing her take-charge legacy by tackling historical illiteracy through a $95 million education project. Vice Regent Boyce Ansley of Georgia - chairman of the new facilities committee and surely the Queen of Succinct - summed up the group?s spirit and governing principle: ?If we don?t do it, nobody will.?

Plans already underway include 26,000 square feet of new construction to house  an orientation and education center, all being built below ground so as not to disturb the estate?s integrity. Other pieces of the project involve educational programs for students and teachers, classroom materials and a documentary film by Steven Spielberg.

Every penny for Mount Vernon, which is held in a non-profit public trust, has been privately raised from foundations and individuals, as well as admission fees and sales revenues from the estate?s restaurant and shops. Read: no government funds.

To date, the ladies have wrenched $85 million from like-minded patriots, but are still about $10 million short. Should any of you fellahs out there have some spare change, the ladies would be charmed, I?m sure.