"A Most Useful Present"
Frances Lilly, March 2001
As I was blithely passing through the security check in the Boston airport, came the unexpected and ominous question: "Excuse me, ma'am, could you step aside so we can examine your bag?" I didn't panic since it was mostly paperwork from the annual meeting that I was carrying, but the X-ray machine operators could not identify an object. I suddenly remembered that I had the Association's presidential gavel in my bag. I pleaded with them to be careful—it was an antique after all. Although one of the security guards was extremely suspicious (perhaps wondering if the gavel had a secret compartment?), I eventually persuaded a supervisor to agree that, yes, it was just a gavel and let me—and the gavel—proceed to my plane.
Many of you may have heard the gavel, but have you ever seen it up close? It is beautifully constructed of fine wood. An etched inscription on the gavel tells us that the head is formed of "the maple of Connecticut, the ash of Pennsylvania, the red birch of New Hampshire, and the oak of New York State." The handle is of vermilion wood of Kentucky. There are precious metal embellishments that bind it together—such as the two silver bands that are engraved "From Nevada." The central gold band carries the name of the donor—Samuel Macauley Jackson.
Congress had incorporated the AHA on January 4, 1899, and Jackson (who was secretary to the Church History Section of the Association) presented the gavel to President James Ford Rhodes for the annual meeting held that year. Rhodes thanked Jackson in the name of the Association "for this useful present."
All of the presidents since then have used this historic thing of beauty. By coincidence that first meeting was in Boston too. I thought of the connection as I flew out of town. As reported in the first volume of the AHA's Annual Report (for 1899), it has been a most "useful present."