It took George Washington eight years to win the Revolutionary War and bring about The Treaty of Paris in 1783. It took the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association almost twice as long to bring about one of the most comprehensive, awe inspiring tributes to his life and times ever conceived and brought to fruition.
Last Friday — with the weather reminiscent of some of those harsh cold, damp days endured by American patriots during the Revolutionary War — more than 700 citizens gathered at Mount Vernon Estate to officially dedicate the new Ford Orientation Center and Donald W. Reynolds Museum/Education Center. It was the culmination of a 15-year dream to reestablish Washington as the nation's "first and greatest hero."
David McCullough, noted author of "1776" and keynote speaker for the 90-minute event, said "you can tell a lot about a person by what they love. George Washington loved his country and his family. He also loved that we Americans had done something no one had ever done before. We established a free, democratic nation. To day is a thrilling moment in our history and for this place,"
Master of Ceremonies Roger Mudd — former newsman and chair of the Mount Vernon Board of Advisors —
welcomed the audience prior to McCullough's address. "As the Regents regularly remind me, I occupy the highest rank any man can rise to here at Mount Vernon," he said.
Mudd then introduced Togo West, former Secretary of the Army and Veterans Affairs, to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by soprano Nicole Cabell singing the National Anthem.
A STRONG EDUCATION advocate, with a particular emphasis on history, McCullough noted that the new Museum/Education Center should serve as a learning center for the nation's youth and teachers.
"We need to get back to specialties such as training history teachers. Teachers are doing the most important job in this nation. They are forming the next generation," McCullough said.
He noted that in a recent national quiz of high school seniors most listed General Ulysses Grant as the commanding general at Yorktown.
"We have been raising a generation who are essentially historically illiterate. If you don't know that George Washington was the commanding general at Yorktown then you don't know what Yorktown signified and you probably don't know much about the American Revolution," he said.
"To deny our children history is to cheat them. History is an infinite source of pleasure. And of all the historic sites we can go to there is no other place like this."
FOLLOWING McCullough's address, Mudd introduced the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, who are featured in the film "Legacy" shown in the Gay Hart Gaines Theater of the Reynolds Education Center. They sang their rendition of "America The Beautiful," which is the center piece of the film co-narrated by McCullough and General Colin Powell.
Coming to the podium, James C. Rees, executive director, Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, thanked the audience for testing the strength of the Reynolds Museum/Education Center roof upon which they were sitting. "If it can support the weight of all of you our flock of sheep should be no problem," he said.
"Over the past 10 years I have met with a number of corporate executives and at times it has been difficult to convince some leaders of corporate America that George Washington was still relevant. But, that has never been the case with Ford Motor Company," Rees said.
The Company's involvement with Mount Vernon Estate dates back to Henry Ford himself when he donated Mount Vernon's first fire engine to protect the Estate.
In recognition of that long history and the Fund's sponsorship of the new Ford Orientation Center, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association Regent Gay Hart Gaines presented Sandy Ulsh, president, Ford Motor Company Fund, with a commemorative bronze bust of George Washington. A like bust was also presented to Fred W. Smith, chairman, Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.
As noted by Rees, Reynolds Foundation has made the largest single philanthropic gift to Mount Vernon in its history as a nonprofit historic site. That gift of $24 million formed nearly one quarter of the total $110 million cost of the overall project.
Rees also announced that on Thursday the Reynolds Foundation had made an additional $2.5 million grant to Mount Vernon to further the aims of its teaching program. That program brings teachers from throughout the nation to develop a better knowledge of Washington and his times to further classroom education.
AS A FINAL tribute, a golden Revolutionary War era cannon was wheeled onto the stage where, following a series of "Huzzahs" led by Rees, it was ignited by McCullough showering the crowd with confetti. That was followed by a confetti fireworks display and the crowd pilgrimage to the official ribbon cutting at the Ford Orientation and Reynolds Museum/Education centers.
"I'm feeling jubilant," said Gaines. "It's been a true team effort. It took the money from the donors, the leadership of Jim Rees and the Ladies' Association, a lot of extra work and effort from the staff and the talents of all the artists who created the exhibits."
Rees agreed. "I can't believe it's happening. Ten years of hard work with lots of ups and downs," he said.
"It actually started with conceptual planning 15 years ago. The fund raising began with the capital campaign of 1998. Now, here it is for all the world to enjoy and learn how great a man George Washington actually was."