This column first appeared in the Tribune on Feb. 26, 2001.
Schoolchildren used to pattern their lives after the heroes of their day; President George Washington was one of my favorites.
He was honest. He worked hard. He became president without having had a lot of formal education. George was the first child of his father's second marriage. He was said to be shy, quiet and modest. He learned arithmetic and farming skills. His father died when George was 11 years old. After a year or two, George went to live in the home of his favorite half-brother, Lawrence. The home, Mount Vernon, was near the Potomac River. He learned to hunt, ride horses, row and sail -- and to swim.
It was a shock to us kids to learn that the cherry tree story and others were just made up by writers who wished to impress youngsters with Washington's almost perfect life. George did, however, learn the ways of pioneers and of cultured gentlemen. It's almost like an intimate visit with this great man to read the "Rules of Civility" in his own handwriting and faulty spelling. When he was 15, he wrote about "decent behavior and conversation" in a copybook that is displayed in the Library of Congress. Listen up, high school guys and gals! Here are a few things Washington thought important:"In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise nor drum with your fingers or feet.""Sleep not when others speak.""Sit not when others stand.""Speak not when you should hold your peace.""Jog not the table or desk on which others read or write.""When you meet anyone of greater quality than yourself, stop, retire ... and give way for him to pass.""Use no reproachful language against any one, neither curse nor revile.""Wear not your clothes foul, unript or dusty, but see they be brushed every day and take heed that you approach not to any uncleanness.""Play not the peacock, looking everywhere about you, to see if you be well decked, if your shoes fit well, if your socking sit neatly and clothes handsomely.""Gaze not on the marks or blemishes of others and ask not how they came.""Treat with men a fit times about business and whisper not in the company of others.""It's unbecoming to stoop much to one's meat. Keep your fingers clean and when foul wipe them on the corner of your table napkin.""Lay not your arm but only your hand upon the table.""If others talk at table, talk not with meat in your mouth.""Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience."
Lawrence Washington died and left George Washington in charge of Mount Vernon. Lawrence's baby daughter died soon afterward. When Lawrence's widow remarried, she gave up her claim to the estate, and George became owner of Mount Vernon. He had learned the manners and courtesies expected of a Virginia gentleman.
The governor of Virginia chose the 21-year-old Maj. George Washington for an important and dangerous mission. With a small company of men, he completed the 500-mile wilderness mission in difficult conditions. Washington was then promoted to lieutenant colonel and given a command. His later exploits and suffering are more widely known in the history of our country. He is justly acclaimed as the father of our country.