A Presidential Pastime

By: Paula Green- 

          As Presidents’ Day approaches, we introduce you to a family whose quest is to see all the presidential burial sites. Pittsburgh natives, Greg and Donna Penco who now reside in Erie, have been visiting historical markers for the past 34 years.

       “The visits to the presidential sites have been an exciting and remarkable adventure in learning more about the individuals that helped shape our nation’s history,” said Greg.

       Their journey began when they were married in 1980.  Both are history buffs, so they decided to honeymoon in Washington, D.C.  During their trip, they visited their first Presidential grave at Mt. Vernon, home and burial site of George Washington.

       Twenty years later, they went back, this time accompanied by their two daughters, Heather and Holly.  They revisited Mt. Vernon, and Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place of John F. Kennedy and William Taft.  They included Woodrow Wilson, who is interred in the Washington National Cathedral.

         The next several years, the Pencos made stops in Virginia to see the burial sites of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Tyler.

        According to Donna, 2004 was their first “official” presidential vacation year.  “We went to Boston to visit the burial sites of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, as well as JFK’s birthplace and Presidential Library.”

        “The following year, we saw six presidential sites during our trip to Nashville.  We toured the ‘Hermitage’ – home and burial site of Andrew Jackson, and James Polk’s grave on the grounds of the Capitol Building.  Enroute to Nashville, we stopped at Warren Harding and William Henry Harrison’s graves in Ohio, Zachary Taylor’s in Kentucky and Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace and childhood homes in Kentucky.  Our last stop was “Spiegel Grove” in Fremont, Ohio, which encompasses the home, library and grave of Rutherford B. Hayes.”

        Their next trip was to New England.  They started in an Albany, N.Y. cemetery to find Chester Arthur.  There are 17 presidents buried in cemeteries, sometimes the pursuit can be challenging.  The Pencos searched for Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison and James Buchanan.  The least impressive grave site they found was Millard Fillmore’s in Buffalo, N.Y., with a simple granite marker with only two letters “MF.”

        They also explored Calvin Coolidge’s final resting site in Plymouth, Vt., Franklin Pierce’s in Concord, N.H., Martin Van Buren’s in Kinderhook, N.Y. and in Hyde Park, N.Y., the home, library and tomb of Franklin Roosevelt.

       The Penco family flew to California for two west coast sites.  “Richard Nixon was born in a humble home that his dad built in Yorba Linda.  His birth home sits steps away from his final resting place.  In Simi Valley, we saw Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Library and grave,” Donna said.

        There were also presidential locations closer to home.  They saw James Garfield’s tomb in Cleveland, Ohio, William McKinley’s in Canton, Ohio and Gerald Ford’s in Grand Rapids, Mich.  On a trip to N.Y.C., the family stopped in Riverside Park, the location of Ulysses Grant’s tomb, the largest mausoleum in North America.

       “Our most recent pilgrimage was to Springfield, Ill., which is truly the ‘Land of Lincoln.’  It became our favorite presidential experience.  Lincoln’s home he resided in prior to the White House is intact.  It is free and to the public.  His son sold the property to the state of Illinois for one dollar, with the stipulation that no one would ever get charged to enter it.  Lincoln’s library opened in 2005.  It takes you from his humble beginnings to his White House days, incorporating life size figures of Lincoln and his family.  Springfield also boasts Lincoln’s law offices to tour, and the old capitol building, where he laid in state before being buried nearby. Walking into the mausoleum that houses his remains, you can almost feel his presence,” stated Greg.

          After Springfield, their next stop was in West Branch, Iowa, the birthplace, home, museum and burial site of Herbert Hoover. 

        “Although our leaders haven’t always been the best at being president, most were decent men who truly cared about the country they led.  It has brought our family closer together to be able to share our passion for history in this special way,” Donna remarked.

        The Penco family has visited 33 presidential burial sites, with only five remaining.  They are: Teddy Roosevelt at Oyster Bay on Long Island, N.Y., Andrew Johnson in Greeneville, Tenn., Lyndon Johnson in Stonewall, Texas, Harry Truman in Independence, Mo., and Dwight Eisenhower in Abilene, Kan.

       They look forward to completing this rewarding experience in the next few years.