University Celebrates Namesake’s 281st

Assistant Professor of History Denver Brunsman delivers remarks Feb. 22 at George Washington's tomb at the Mount Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens.
A wreath-laying ceremony, bonfire and a lecture tonight from Pulitzer Prize winner Gordon Wood mark George Washington’s birthday.
February 25, 2013

George Washington community members celebrated the university’s namesake last week, participating in events on campus, at the president’s Mount Vernon Estate, Museum & Gardens and all over the world.

This afternoon, the celebration continues with Pulitzer Prize winner and leading American historian Gordon Wood, who will deliver the first annual George Washington Lecture on the president at the Marvin Center at 4 p.m.

On Friday, roughly 75 community members toured Mount Vernon Estate before paying their respects at Washington’s tomb. Assistant Professor of History Denver Brunsman delivered remarks, and students Amy Watson and Alex Whisnant recited the pledge of allegiance and read Washington’s prayer for his country.

Dr. Brunsman, who teaches a GW course on George Washington at the estate, said it was “truly special and humbling” to pay tribute to Washington on his birthday.

“In a very real sense he’s left us with a living legacy,” Dr. Brunsman said. “In multiple and different ways we all share a living relationship with George Washington.”

For many in the GW community, their relationship is through the university. Washington had the vision to create a university in the heart of Washington, D.C., and allocated shares in his will to help endow it.

“He wanted a university that broke the elitist tradition that existed then of American sons—and unfortunately it was only sons—who traveled to Europe to get an education,” Dr. Brunsman said. “He worried that while they were there they might lose the spirit of republicanism that animated the country in the revolution.”

Nearly 300 years later, Dr. Brunsman said Washington wouldn’t have even imagined the diverse university GW has become.

“Not only have people come from all corners of the United States to attend GW, but all corners of the world,” he said.

Still, Dr. Brunsman said, Washington, who owned slaves but included in his will a provision for their freedom, wasn’t perfect. His tomb, which is near the estate’s slave memorial, is a reminder of that.

“This also reminds us that for all of Washington’s greatness, he wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t a god, and he would certainly be the first person to acknowledge that,” he said.

Washington remains an important historical figure who has left a legacy for all of us, Dr. Brunsman said.

“Indeed, part of his living legacy for us is to rise above our various differences … and to do better.”

After the wreath-laying, community members gathered on University Yard, enjoying a bonfire, colonial-era music, hot drinks, marshmallow-roasting and s’mores-making.

Celebrations weren’t just contained to the District area. Nearly 1,000 alumni gathered for birthday parties in dozens of cities across the country, from Atlanta to Phoenix to Portland, and around the world, from India to Argentina to England. (See the photos from the parties.)

Brennan Berry, B.A. ’07, who organized the event in London, said it had a great turnout, bringing alumni from a wide range of backgrounds and ages. The event was a particularly good opportunity to network with fellow GW alumni in London, he added.

“It’s important to keep our alumni network strong, particularly for alums living abroad, and the chapter is a great place to meet people with shared backgrounds,” he said.