Sometimes, on a slow news day, reporters desperately look for stories. Sometimes they can’t find any, sometimes they just fall into your lap, like this email that was forwarded to us:
“Our son, Kurt, is a lifelong Cranston resident that has just become the only person ever to visit the grave of every
president and vice president. That may seem improbable but it is due to the fact that nobody else that has attempted such a feat has been able to gain access to the private, final resting place of Nelson Rockefeller on the family estate in New York. Even C-Span founder Brian Lamb was denied access while writing his book, ‘Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb?’”
The email was from Paul Deion, a Cranston resident who has encouraged his son’s propensity for “hands-on-history” and who is more than a little proud of the fact that he helped his son visit every grave of every president and vice president of the United States. More remarkable, Kurt Deion is only 19 years old and it has been just about 10 years since he started his pilgrimage, with his father with him and encouraging him all the way and being justifiably proud of Kurt’s enthusiasm for history. A visit to Kurt’s website will convince you that his interest far exceeded the “stunt” of visiting all the graves.
“Along the way Kurt has met former presidents Clinton and Carter, been locked in cemeteries by accident and on purpose, and handcuffed to the homicide detective that was handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald when he was shot by Jack Ruby,” said Paul. “Kurt has been wowed by the reverence and loyalty displayed by the fans of Curly from ‘The Three Stooges’ and has even beaten the usually reliable Walter Cronkite to his own grave!”
Of course that claim required some clarification and Kurt provides it. He and his father were on the road and had visited Harry Truman and then the Eisenhower Presidential Center and decided to take a side trip to Kansas City and a visit to the graves of Satchel Paige, the legendary black baseball player who got into the Majors at an age when most white players were retiring. They also heard that Walter Cronkite’s grave was in the same cemetery.
“When we asked one of the men where we could find Cronkite's grave, he told us that we couldn't visit it. He wasn't buried there!
“The employee went on to explain that Cronkite's body had been cremated and that its remains were still in New York awaiting their transfer to Kansas City. This was completely unexpected and somewhat disappointing, but I'm still glad that we went to Mount Moriah because we had a nice conversation with the man who worked there … So Walter Cronkite was not buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery at the time of our visit; we actually beat him to his own grave!”
As you may have noticed, Kurt Deion has a droll streak when it comes to history and he traces his fascination and amusement with the subject of presidents to a book his mother gave him when he was just a 7-year-old titled, “So You Want to Be President.”
“I initially had no interest whatsoever in reading it, but when I did, I became enthralled by its interesting facts about the commanders-in-chief and its humorous illustrations,” wrote Kurt, but in a phone conversation this week, he admitted that the illustrations appealed to him.
“President Taft weighed over 300 pounds and the book had an illustration of him stuck in the bathtub,” said Kurt. “It was the humorous illustrations that got me into it.”
But the fascination with presidents continued to grow, along with his collection of books about the presidents.
“Within the next year or so I was able to visit several president-related sites, such as Mount Vernon, the Adams National Historic Park, and a handful of tombs,” said Kurt.
“Then one winter day my father told me about a television program he watched, which discussed how the founder of the political channel C-SPAN, Brian Lamb, visited the graves of every president. Once I heard what he had to say, I asked my father a fateful question: Could we visit the graves of all the presidents, too? The answer, clearly, was yes,” according to Kurt’s biography.
His travels took him to a variety of other sites, including presidential libraries and museums, presidential residences and state capitols. In 2009 he launched his website, www.kurtshistoricsites.com. The site maintains a chronicle of Kurt’s travels and displays the growth of his reach. His method of “hands-on history” has taken him into other areas of history and other personalities, like Charles Goodyear, Robert Fulton and Andrew Carnegie. He acknowledges how much he has learned from books, “but so much more has come from visiting historic sites and seeing artifacts and documents firsthand.”
Kurt says he completed the core portion of his quest by the age of 17 when he went to “my last remaining presidential burial site. Less than two years later I paid my respects at the grave of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and in doing so became likely the only person in the world to visit the burial sites of every U.S. president and vice president.”
Right now, Kurt is a sophomore at Bryant University working toward a Bachelor of Arts in history, which, on the basis of the writing on his website, would seem almost redundant. There are few universities that would impose a curriculum as demanding as the one that Kurt had set for himself.
“I am now in the process of visiting the graves of everyone who signed the Declaration of Independence and I have started visiting sites of people who signed the Constitution.”
Kurt continues to wonder why it was the tongue-in-cheek approach to history in “So You Want to Be President,” by Judith St. George and David Small, according to Kurt’s website.
“But what probably gripped me most of all was the hilarious illustrations: eight tiny tikes biting George Washington and pulling his hair, Quentin Roosevelt riding a horse inside the Executive Mansion, and my favorite: the rotund President Taft being lowered into a bath tub by a construction worker-operated crane! Turkey leg and champagne glass in hand of course!”
But, if you are inclined to think that Kurt Deion doesn’t take his history seriously, or has no respect for his subject, his trip with his father to one presidential grave demonstrates the balanced view he has of his subject.
“When the morning came, we quickly headed over to President McKinley's grand tomb to take some pictures. As we strolled up the 108 steps leading to the structure, both of us noticed people were jogging down the same set of stairs. It appeared that McKinley's tomb had a practical use as well.
Entering the tomb, we were not surprised to see that the burial chamber was very dark. The majority of the light inside was shining in through the glass doors, but the camera's flash enabled us to take clear photos. Once we paid our respects, we
exited the building and went to the neighboring William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum, which seemed to be more of a museum about McKinley's time period than a museum about his presidency. Walking past more joggers,
we left for the nearby Football Hall of Fame. We had a very good time there, and my father received a free mug because it was Father's Day. Also, we visited the National First Ladies Library, located several miles away. A few hours later we were on the road again, headed for the town of Fremont, located over 125 miles west.”
Freemont, in case you didn’t know, is the site of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center. Hayes was the first president to use a telephone and he made that call from Rocky Point to the City Hotel in Providence. So, Kurt Deion is not the only person around here who knows a little about presidents; he’s the only person in the world who knows a little about every president’s burial site.
“As far as we know, I’m the only person who has visited every president’s and every vice president’s grave,” said Kurt. “And I did it two months before I graduated from high school.”
To read about Kurt’s adventures, see remarkable photos, videos and a special section of video bloopers, visit www.kurtshistoricsites.com.