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Remembering William McKinley's legacy on the anniversary of his birth

Canton paid tribute to its most famous resident over the weekend.

Monday, Jan. 29 marks President William McKinley’s 181st birthday. On Saturday, dignitaries converged at the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum in Canton to honor the former Ohio governor and 25th president of the United States.

Several wreaths, many decorated with red carnations — a flower McKinley regularly wore on his lapel for good luck — were placed under a bust of McKinley, including one on behalf of the current president.

A wreath of red, white and blue carnations plus purple irises with a red, white and blue ribbon.
Josh Boose
Ideastream Public Media
President William McKinley's birthday, Jan. 29, is also recognized as National Red Carnation Day. In 1902, to mark the first anniversary of McKinley's assassination, the nation was encouraged to wear red carnations, as McKinley liked to wear on his lapel for good luck. Red Carnation Day was moved to January to honor McKinley's birth rather than his death. The red carnation is also the state flower of Ohio. This wreath was sent on behalf of U.S. President Joe Biden.

“Every year, in honor of the president’s birthday, the White House sends a general to lay a wreath on his gravesite, and that’s across the country, that happens for every president,” said Kim Kenney, executive director of the McKinley library. “For us, we like to add in all of the things that represent his military service and all the different levels of government.”

Born in Niles, Ohio, in 1843, McKinley served in the Union Army and moved to Canton after the Civil War to practice law. Here, he met his wife, Ida Saxton, and spent 14 years representing the district in Congress.

Twice elected governor of Ohio, McKinley ran for U.S. president in 1896 from the porch of his Canton home in order to stay beside his ailing wife. With the support of Cleveland power broker Mark Hanna, McKinley twice defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan for the White House.

During his second term as president, McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York, in 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition. His vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, assumed the presidency.

“Teddy Roosevelt often eclipses him,” Kenney said. “(Roosevelt) was very progressive and kind of very loud. But President McKinley was kind of that old 19th century, dignified person who was the last person to serve in that role as a Civil War soldier.”

To honor the fallen president, his burial site in Canton was purchased to build the McKinley National Memorial, dedicated in 1907, where Ida McKinley and their daughters were also laid to rest.

“So, our president is in a special club,” Kenney said, referring to McKinley’s assassination. “There's only four of them, thankfully. But we like to honor him every year, and it’s important for us to do that on his birthday.”

"There aren't too many presidential communities across the country, and Canton is one of those.”
Kim Kenney, Executive Director, McKinley Presidential Library & Museum

More than a century after the end of his administration, McKinley’s policies are still relevant to the country, Kenney said.

A soldier stands playing a trumpet below a statue of William McKinley.
Josh Boose
Ideastream Public Media
Andrew Neer, 338th U.S. Army Band, plays taps at the conclusion of the service marking President William McKinley’s birthday on the steps of the McKinley Memorial in Canton, Ohio.

“He’s well known also as having been president during the Spanish-American War,” said Kenney. “And that’s really a turning point for our country. We were very inwardly focused before that. And then afterwards we were a global superpower. We emerged as this kind of new entity. And that set the kind of the slate for foreign policy into the 20th century. So, if people are trying to understand why we’re in other wars in other countries, it all started during the Spanish-American War. So, he’s actually very relevant today.”

It’s not just McKinley who remains politically relevant. In presidential election years, Stark County and Ohio are considered bellwethers for the country, Kenney said.

“We get a lot of attention every four years.”

In memory of the former commander in chief, Saturday’s salute to McKinley concluded with the playing of taps by Andrew Neer of the 338th U.S. Army Band.

Josh Boose is associate producer for newscasts at Ideastream Public Media.