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Pa. pair push for Buchanan statue

July 11, 1999

Gordon, NallyBy DON AINES / Staff Writer, Chambersburg

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer




MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Dappled by shade from a stand of hemlock trees in Peters Township is perhaps the only pyramid ever erected to honor a United States president.

For George Nalley and Lannie Gordon, this well-hidden tribute to James Buchanan, paid for by the estate of his niece and surrogate first lady, Harriet Lane Johnson, falls short. The two men have embarked on an effort to raise money for a life-size statue of the nation's 15th president they hope will grace the downtown by the time the borough celebrates its 250th anniversary next year.

"This was his boyhood home and it is only fitting and proper that there be a statue," Gordon, 55, of 5444 Charlestown Road, said Sunday.

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"They've had 140 years to do this and it hasn't been done," said Nalley, 73, of 13505 Buchanan Trail West, referring to local and state officials. Buchanan is the only president who was born in Pennsylvania.

Gordon, a barber, and Nalley, a retired executive who moved to Mercersburg from Hagerstown, Md., began working on the project from different angles a few months ago.

Gordon approached the Borough Council and began writing to Congressman Bud Shuster, State Sen. Terry Punt and others to fund a monument in town for Buchanan. Nalley had contacted a sculptor to find out how much it would cost to cast a statue.

Now the two have joined forces and helped set up a nonprofit James Buchanan Statue Fund at the First National Bank of Mercersburg, 12 S. Main St.

The price tag for a bronze six-foot statue of Buchanan is about $25,000, according to Nalley. A bust of the Democratic president would be about $12,000. Nalley said they have more than $6,000 pledged to the project, including $2,000 each from a local veterans organization, a construction company and an individual.

Both men hope the money can be raised by the end of the year so a sculptor can be commissioned to cast a statue by next year's anniversary.

Nalley believes an appropriate place for the statue would be in front of the Fendrick Library, 20 N. Main St., next to the Harriett Lane House, where Buchanan's niece once lived. Buchanan was the only president who never married, and Lane acted as White House hostess from 1857 to 1861.

Karl Reisner, a history teacher at Mercersburg Academy, said he would like to see the statue on the borough square, but the project is more important than its placement.

"Without a doubt, he's the most significant person to come out of Mercersburg or Franklin County," said Reisner, who has portrayed Buchanan in a one-man show about 400 times since Buchanan's 200th birthday in 1991.

"When people talk about James Buchanan, they say he was a do-nothing president," Nalley said. He said the man who preceded Abraham Lincoln should be credited with "trying his best to keep a lid on what was happening" before the Civil War.

"He was a man who remained steadfastly true to his principles even though it was unpopular to do so," according to Reisner. He said Buchanan was a strict constructionist of the U.S. Constitution who would not act to expand his presidential powers without consent of Congress.

"The Union was more sacred to him than any other principle, including slavery," Reisner said. While Buchanan favored popular sovereignty over the issue of slavery in the territories, he refused to relinquish federal forts to the states that seceded before Lincoln's inauguration.

Buchanan's greatest accomplishments occurred when he was secretary of state to President James K. Polk from 1845 to 1849. The former ambassador to Great Britain helped settle a dispute with that country over the Oregon Territory and supported the Mexican War and annexing of Texas.

Buchanan died in 1868 at Wheatland, his home in Lancaster, Pa.

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