A presidential chat

John Douglas Hall, master interpreter of President James Madison chats with a young visitor to Montpelier. (Photo from Belle Grove)

John Douglas Hall, master interpreter of President James Madison, chats with a young visitor to Montpelier. (Photo from Belle Grove)

Last Saturday, during an event filled with dignity, ceremony and the best of history, President Alger and members of the JMU community traveled over the mountain to the home of President James Madison, Montpelier. It was a day where the past and the present met.

The occasion marked the 262th birthday of the fourth U.S. president and the man for whom our university is named. President Alger delivered a speech in which he called for a “Return to Madison” — a serious charge to recapture the kind of productive civil discourse that was so fundamental to President Madison’s success as a founding father. In a society often filled with rude and contentious interactions, it was a timely and important message.

In the audience that day  was a couple who is also working hard to keep alive the memory of James Madison. Michelle and Brett Darnell — an intrepid couple by anyone’s definition — have been working for the past several years to restore the historic birthplace of the fourth president, Belle Grove Plantation located in Port Conway, Va. (We’ve blogged about Belle Grove before.) Although neither Michelle nor Brett is a graduate of JMU, we would be hard pressed not to label them as part of the Madison community. Their work to restore and open the plantation adds yet another dimension  — and destination —  to the important story of James Madison.

Michelle and Brett Darnell

Michelle and Brett Darnell

I follow the Darnell’s Belle Grove Plantation blog and noticed Michelle had written a post about their day at Montpelier. The couple met President Alger and John Douglas Hall, the man who brings James Madison to life. They took in the ceremony, the history and the beauty of Montpelier. (Michelle’s blog also has lots of pictures from the event. See the link above.)

One observation in the blog was especially interesting. She wrote:

As we entered the room, we observed Mr. Madison sitting with a young girl on one side of the room deep in conversation. Her father was sitting across the aisle taping the conversation on his cell phone. Mrs. Madison was on the opposite side of the room also holding a conversation, with a young boy.

It was as if the past collided with the present, one of those rich moments when history becomes real and accessible. When this happens, our challenge is to learn everything we can and apply its lessons wisely, as President Alger suggests.

In addition to marking the day, the event signaled a strengthened association between JMU and Montpelier. The collaboration will benefit historians, students of all ages and anyone curious about history. It will happen in classrooms, over the Internet and wherever people — like Michelle and Brett — are sufficiently interested in history to gather and chat.

You can read more about the Montpelier event in a story by JMU’s Jim Heffernan (’96).

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