Nan Austin

On Campus: Presidents Day – going beyond cherry pie and aliens

Monday is Presidents Day, when kids sleep in and stores have sales. Unlike other holidays, this one does not come with fireworks or barbecues. In my mind, it always will be linked with just cherry pie, in honor of George Washington’s alleged misdeed with a hatchet.

To prepare for the day, I downloaded a half-dozen phone apps pledging to teach me all about the U.S. presidents. My favorite was Presidents vs. Aliens, which lets players launch a president’s head at space aliens in front of the Lincoln Monument for every right answer.

After a quick run-through, the apps mostly succeeded in teaching me how much I did not know about our presidents, outside of the all-stars such as Washington and Abraham Lincoln and recent residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Even then, I did not know Lincoln had size 14 feet, the largest of any president.

This was confirmed by Johnston & Murphy, makers of presidential shoes since 1850. Rutherford B. Hayes had the smallest feet, size 7. Bill Clinton, by the way, had the company make him a pair of blue suede shoes, size 13D.

Obscure facts collected by include that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were close friends who both died on July 4, 1826, and that John Quincy Adams used to skinny dip in the Potomac early in the morning. John Tyler had the most children, 15 – the last at age 70.

Lincoln was the only licensed bartender of the lot. He owned Berry and Lincoln, a saloon in Springfield, Ill., according to Random Facts. Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president, was the only hangman, a job he performed twice as sheriff of Erie County, N.Y.

Jimmy Carter was the first president to have been born in a hospital, and the first to go on record as having seen a UFO. James Garfield could write Latin with one hand and Greek with the other, simultaneously, Random Facts claims.

For a quick rundown of Washington’s and Lincoln’s lives, check the infographic by Nathan Raab at

Fun and wacky facts offer a quick and easy entry into American history. But the broader topic of civic learning also deserves a mention this holiday. The California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning is a joint project of the California courts and Department of Education, supported by the California School Boards Association and funded by the California Bar Foundation.

A task force report lists six core activities to improve the quality and effectiveness of civic learning in schools. Learning about government, law and economics tops the list, which also recommends linking citizenship to service learning projects and extracurricular activities.

Practicing democratic processes will help, including student involvement in school governance. Lastly, it recommends discussing current events and controversial topics.

While schools work out the language and the literature to bring all that to the classroom, parents can feel free to use this long weekend to try some civic learning on their own. Check out weird facts about presidents and talk about the history behind them. Put family chores down as service learning and put a house rule up for debate.

Run out of energy and ideas? Take on presidential trivia and boot out some space aliens.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.