Presidential Knowledge

Education, Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, People
on February 18, 2001

Joseph Peterson can rattle off presidential trivia faster than a game show contestant. He knows that Calvin Coolidge was the only president to be sworn in by his father; that Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon were the nations only two Quaker presidents; and that James A. Garfield was the first left-handed president.

Peterson, of Duluth, Minn., has turned learning about the nations highest office into a passionate pastime. He spends his free time perusing history books and scouring libraries researching the lives of the 42 presidents, and he shares his knowledge in classrooms, nursing homes, and at political functions across the North Star State.

Im mostly in demand during elections and at Presidents Day, says Peterson, 46, a bookkeeper by day. For kids, I keep it short and try to make it into a game.

Kids today dont get the whole presidential picture, he adds. They hear mostly about Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. They dont realize there are other presidents who are equally interesting.

Petersons own fascination with the presidents began at an early age. Shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Peterson wrote a paper about the president for his second-grade class in Cloquet, Minn.

I turned it in without my name on it, Peterson recalls. The teacher liked it so much she read it to the class and asked who the author was. After Id admitted it was mine, the teacher gave me a book about President Lincoln.

It was the first of hundreds of books, documents, and artifacts that Peterson has amassed about the presidency over the years. His extensive knowledge has gained him invitations to a State of the Union address, President Clintons 1993 inauguration, and the dedication of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas.

My personal favorites were the library dedication and the State of the Union address, he says. They were more about simple, dignified pageantry. They were not as crowded, so the pageantry was more impressive.

But Petersons underlying interest is in the mystique of the presidency itself. Im interested in all the presidents, Peterson says. Whats so interesting is that theyre all simple people, just like us. Poor or rich, it doesnt matter, they ended up as president.

But sometimes the process of electing a new president can be as interesting as the presidents themselves. The November 2000 election was proof of that, and its delayed results were unprecedented in history, Peterson says.

The 1876 election that eventually brought Rutherford Hayes into office had some similarities, but nothing like the election of the current president, he says. But both elections ended up waiting on the state of Florida.

However, Peterson, who worked as an election judge in November, believes the election process is better now than it was in 1876, when cheating was easily done. At least in Minnesota the process worked, he says. Were lucky in Minnesota, he adds. Were organized, were efficient, the elections run smoothly, with no controversy.

And now, with a new administration in Washington D.C., theres a whole new chapter of presidential history for Peterson to study.