In the year lately passed I have participated in celebrations marking the hundredth anniversary of the births of two outstanding public men - Franklin Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia. No doubt these have not been the only such anniversaries; the year 1983 will bring to the fore others of a similar nature. What does it mean to mark such an occasion? And is it well to take so much time remembering?
A great man's hundredth anniversary finds many of those who served him and worked with him still surviving. They gather like old boys at a college reunion recalling times gone by when they were themselves vigorous and when giants roamed the land. They may have suffered defeats and disappointments in their day of battle, but these do not matter now. They have been poorly treated by their chief. The days when they carried a lance in his cause seem nevertheless the best days of their life. Everything afterwards pales to insignificance, like the last act of a play that fades slowly to an anticlimax.
It is these old warriors that give the tone to the gathering - a little too sentimental, a little defensive as they see the first flush of their hero's fame declining and wait apprehensively for history to give an ultimate verdict. For them the occasion may be a last hurrah, and they make the most of it in stories often told and retold, in reminiscences grown unsubstantial through the passage of time. Only now and then will some younger adherent to the cause speak out, proclaiming the values which the departed hero stood for. He will ask the really important question: can we, in our day, do as well? Can we be as innovative and bold as they were, and not mere defenders of an inherited tradition?
On the whole such commemorations are surely to the good. We live in a society dangerously prone to lose its collective memory. The events of the day are so gripping, the latest sensation so monopolizing, that everything that happened a week or a month ago begins to seem dim. In our personal lives we suffer the same distortions. When everything falls upon us with hectic force the enjoyments of yesterday are scarcely recalled; we go innocently from one crisis to another. The slow accumulation of experience and feeling, which alone gives to life its texture and, to an individual, richness of personality, no longer exerts its spell.
The faithful few, calling us back before it is too late to sources of our common strength, to the roots of hope, are providing a boon beyond their own realization. To remember Franklin Roosevelt, or on a scarcely lesser scale to remember LaGuardia, is to be fortified for the tests that still lie ahead for us. They were both difficult and complex men, making enemies in their time and by no means always wise in their decisions or policies. But there was that about them which gave other men a share in their determination and left a glow over years to follow. They possessed the supreme gift of mental and spiritual energy. They were among those whom T. S. Eliot describes as being undefeated only because they keep on trying.
When we think of such as are remembered after a hundred years we find them invariably to be men and women who loved life for its own sake, and gave back to others a sense of life enhanced and enlarged. Whatever their role in the great drama of their times, they played it to the hilt and enjoyed the performance as much as did their audience. They may have strutted and declaimed, but the spotlight followed them as by a natural attraction. When they fell even their failures made reverberations in the universe. Remember them? How could we forget them even if we wanted to!
In my own life I have known in their old age men and women who in their youth must have been almost unbearably noisy or egotistical. But they mellowed with time and at the end they made the best of companions and counselors. To have something to mellow from is important. The fruit that is all ripeness at its prime decays early and is old before its season. So it is with historical figures: we want them to have something of a swashbuckling carriage, and then at their centennial we are ready to recall their example with joy.