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Time Passages: The birthdays of presidents

Later this month we’ll observe President’s Day, which is generally associated with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln since their birthdays are so close together on Feb. 12 and 22 respectively.

So, I thought it would be interesting to look back at some presidential birthday stories.

Although we’re recognizing President Lincoln’s birthday now, he didn’t celebrate his special day while in office at the White House because of the country’s deep struggle with the Civil War.

About 80 years later it was a celebratory time for President Harry Truman on his 61st birthday on May 8, 1945, when Germany coincidentally surrendered to end WW II in Europe. As the U.S. and most of the world celebrated V-E Day, Truman shared birthday cake with his staff.

In another two years the White House had the first presidential bowling alley installed in 1947, which was a birthday gift to Truman from supporters in his home state of Missouri. Truman used the bowling alley infrequently, but his staff enjoyed the perk and formed a White House league.

One of the biggest celebrations of birthday parties for presidents centered around the life of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1934, there were 4,376 communities joining in 600 separate celebrations held all across the country in honor of FDR’s 52nd birthday. FDR used his birthday as a fundraiser for Warm Springs, Ga., where he had purchased the site of a future rehabilitation center for polio patients like himself.

The idea took off when his birthdays became known as the “Birthday Balls” with many communities around the nation participating and scheduling dances on his Jan. 30 birth date. The slogan used to promote the events was, “Dance So That Others May Walk.”

FDR’s glamorous 1934 birthday bash was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City where 52 young girls – one for each age of the president’s life – all wore white satin and chiffon gowns topped with hats shaped like triple-tiered birthday cakes.

Each girl carried in her right hand a long, pink electric candle. Then they formed together to resemble the shape of a birthday cake and held the candles over their heads, switched on their battery-powered flames and sang, “Happy Birthday to you.”

Roosevelt also received numerous “real cakes” among the hundreds of gifts sent to the White House. One cake shipped to him from Los Angeles weighed 250 pounds. Seems a little excessive considering the country was mired in the effort to recover from the depths of the Great Depression.

Also at FDR’s 52nd party, he received 100,000 telegrams that were sent to the White House. One was 1,280 feet long and signed by 40,000 people. It took two days to transmit and two messengers to deliver. That would be a heck of a tweet or text message today.

FDR’s birthday balls continued for the remainder of his presidency, raising millions of dollars for the March of Dimes and Roosevelt Warm Springs Treatment Center, where he died in April 1945.

For as much as FDR’s birthday parties were flamboyant, President Jimmy Carter’s were the opposite, low-key events, such as in 1977 when he had a single cake made of pistachio.

President Bill Clinton had a flair for the dramatic when he celebrated his 50th birthday with a party at Radio City Music Hall. The gala raised $10 million for the Democratic Party in 1996. The cake was so big that he needed the help of his daughter, Chelsea, to blow out the candles.

Two presidents celebrated political victories on their birthdays when Warren Harding returned from playing a round of golf on Nov. 2, 1920, to find 55 small pink candles in a frosted white cake. While eating his cake he got the biggest birthday gift of all as he sat back to follow election returns and learn that he had been elected president. He’s the only man to win the presidency on his birthday.

Lyndon Johnson gave himself a 56th birthday present when he changed the schedule to accept his party’s nomination for president on Aug. 27 at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J.

At Ronald Reagan’s surprise Feb. 4 birthday party in 1981 he had veal, lobster and cake for dinner. Two years later, at the end of a White House press conference, First Lady Nancy Reagan presented the president with a small, one candle cake, and provided another for White House reporters. Things were more civil back then I guess.

When Teddy Roosevelt turned 50 on Oct. 27, 1908, he received letters and congratulations from across the globe, including one from England’s King Edward IV which simply stated, “Cordial Congratulations.” Apparently turning 50 was a big deal back then, too.

In 1912, the people of Staunton, Va., President Woodrow Wilson’s hometown, gave him miniature ivory portraits of his parents. In 2006, President George W. Bush received a belt buckle from visiting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and cuff links from his staff.

Of course, the most famous presidential birthday gathering was undoubtedly the one held for President John F. Kennedy for his 45th in 1962. We’ve all seen or heard movie star Marilyn Monroe’s sultry rendition of the “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” song.

Then there’s the elder President George H.W. Bush who probably commemorated his birthdays best of all after leaving office. Four times on his 75th, 80th, 85th and 90th birthdays, with a tandem U.S. Army Golden Knight skydiver assisting him, Bush parachuted out of a plane or helicopter.

Perhaps the best birthday advice came from him when he completed the jumps and remarked, “Get out and do something. Get out and enjoy life.” As Mr. Bush would say, read his lips.

I think it’s time for everyone to make a pledge to treat the rest of your remaining birthdays as more than just “another day” in your life.

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