If wrinkles must be written on our brow, let them not be written on our heart. The spirit should not grow old.
President James A. Garfield
Adventure beckoned for 16 year old James A. Garfield. The youngest of five children, he’d had a hardscrabble childhood in rural Ohio. He was born in a log cabin—the last of our presidents to enter the world in that venue—and was raised by his soon to be widowed mother. Life may have been hard, but Garfield grew up in a large extended family that was both close-knit and loving. He received a rudimentary education in the village school and could read and write well. But it was the romantic allure of the sea that called and so he went. The devout young Christian would soon learn, however, that to the sea, as to faith, many are called but few are chosen. After just six weeks, he fell ill and retired forever from a career as a “canal boy.” He recovered at home and prudently decided to substitute higher education for romanticism. He enrolled in Geauga Seminary and found that academic study could be just as enticing as life at sea (or on a canal). At 20, he continued his education with college preparatory studies at Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later renamed Hiram College) and discovered an aptitude for the classics. After completing the course of study, he applied for admission as an upper classman to Yale, Brown and Williams. At the time, the President of Williams was seeking “sincere yet rustic” men from the West to counter the “signs of effeteness” he found in the student body. The now 22 year old Garfield (Old Gar to his classmates) entered as a junior and graduated in two years.
Always poor, Garfield worked his way through these various schools as a janitor, carpenter, bell ringer, preacher and part-time teacher. Though for politicians of the time a log cabin birth and a poor upbringing were campaign assets, Garfield never sentimentalized poverty. In later years he reminisced, “I lament that I was born to poverty, and in this chaos of childhood, seventeen years passed before I caught any inspiration…a precious 17 years when a boy with a father and some wealth might have become fixed in manly ways.” He may have lamented his late start, but that inspiration—his spirit—never flagged. Garfield was energized by life. That youthful spirit would propel him to success as an attorney, battlefield commander in the Civil War, a long-tenured member of the U.S. House of Representatives and, of course, President of the United States.
Long after his formal education ended, Garfield delighted in learning. At home he and his wife conversed in Latin and Greek. He amused his friends by simultaneously writing in Latin with one hand and Greek with the other. Though never noted as a mathematician, he developed a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem while serving in Congress. He kept his spirit young by never simply settling. He never yielded to complacency or accepted the status quo. Most of all, he enjoyed life. He was intrigued with his work and challenged himself to learn more about it. He was a kind and charitable friend. And he adored his family. He was passionately committed to his wife. In the Garfield White House, the joyful sounds of children vigorously at play resounded and were doubly amplified when he joined in the play himself. Wrinkles are inevitable, but the Garfield theorem for an inspired, youthful spirit rings true. Never stop learning, keep pushing the boundaries of the everyday and enjoy the life you live. Thank you, Mr. President. —Ebert