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Allentown Educator Leaves Presidential Legacy for History Buffs

16 February 2011 2 Comments

Days before he died in September 2010, Allentown’s Jack McHugh summoned Joe Garrera to his home. McHugh, a beloved principal at the city’s William Allen High School for years and an equally admired community leader during his long retirement, was also an amateur historian and an inveterate collector of presidential memorabilia. He had already bequeathed a substantial amount of material about Franklin Roosevelt to the FDR Library in Hyde Park, N.Y. and now he wanted to make sure the rest of his collection was properly preserved.

He knew that Garrera, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, would take care of that last request.

LCHS Curator Jill Youngken tries out a rocker similar to that used by President John F. Kennedy to alleviate his chronic back pain.

The result is “American Presidents: From Washington to Obama,” which opens Saturday, Feb. 19 and runs through June 19 at the museum on Walnut Street in Allentown. The exhibit includes more than 250 items reflecting every president, but the focus is on those who served during significant times during our nation’s history, said Curator Jill Youngken.

“Many of them were donated by the late Jack McHugh. That’s part of the impetus for this exhibit, that’s why we wanted to do this now,” Youngken said as museum staff and volunteers were setting up the exhibit just before Lincoln’s birthday

“What we really want to do is create some excitement about our democratic system. And although we have something on all of our presidents, we focus on those whom we feel were in office at a critical time,” she continued, noting that Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy are among them.

The exhibit includes a replica of the wheelchair FDR used because of paralysis caused by polio before he became president; a replica of the rocker that JFK used to soothe his troubled back – caused in part when a Japanese destroyer rammed his PT boat during World War II; and and almost life-sized portrait of Teddy Roosevelt painted by Bethlehem artist Rosemary Geseck. Visitors can sit in the Kennedy rocker and have their picture taken.

The exhibit also includes a rare signed photo of Kennedy and his Vice President and successor Lyndon Baines Johnson and a copy of the Warren Report, which includes the results of the investigation into Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Material on all of the modern presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, is also on display.

Artist Rosemary Geseck works on a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt for the upcoming exhibit.

One of the most interesting exhibits is a wall of small presidential portraits that includes no identifications. The idea is that visitors must tap their presidential knowledge to determine who is who (I scored a B+.)

The heritage center is located at 432 W. Walnut St. in Allentown is easily accessible from Routes 309, 22, 145 and Interstate 78. It draws about 25,000 to 30,000 visitors annually from as far away as New York, Maryland and Virginia.

What To Know: Other ongoing exhibits include a Pennsylvania German display that runs through August, “Energy Past & Present: Creating, Consuming and Conserving,” which runs through the end of the year; and a variety of special programs and educational seminars throughout the year.

If You Go: The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $6 for adults; $3 for children. Parking is on-street but handicapped access is available.

Facts: Executive Director Joe Garrera is a nationally recognized Lincoln scholar; current president of the Lincoln Group of New York and a member of the federal advisory panel on the Lincoln Bicentennial.


  • John T said:

    I have a lamp that has the inscription
    “FDR the man of the hour” .
    I can send a picture.

    Like to know more of its history and if it was for sale during FDR’s time as US president.

  • admin (author) said:

    John, thanks for reading. Probably best to check with your local university or historical society for an expert to give you details on that lamp.