- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 21, 2007

Ever wonder if the most recent presidents were straight-A students? If they were good athletes? If they played musical instruments? The National Archives’ newly opened exhibit, “School House to White House,” offers answers to these and many other questions.

“They came from very different backgrounds. Many of them did very well in school, but not all of them,” says Jen Nichols, exhibit coordinator. “It’s interesting. There is no formula for getting to the presidential office, but all these men got there. The one thing they have in common is they were very involved in school. … They were no slackers.”

The exhibit, which is open through the end of the year, consists of 152 items, including report cards, photos, musical instruments, letters and other memorabilia from a dozen of our most recent presidents.

The display is appropriate for school-age children and takes 30 to 45 minutes to self-tour, Ms. Nichols says. There are few hands-on activities.

The exhibit is organized chronologically; visitors are introduced to future presidents while they were not yet school age. On display, for example, is a copy of “The Great Panjandrum Himself,” by Samuel Foote, which belonged to Franklin Roosevelt when he was preschool age. He eventually amassed a personal collection of 17,000 books.

“For many of the presidents, learning started in the home. A lot of them were bookworms,” Ms. Nichols says. “Evidently, Eisenhower’s mom would have to lock up the books or he wouldn’t do his chores.”

After a brief glimpse into the presidents’ early home life, the exhibit continues with information from these future leaders’ grade-school days. Visitors learn that John F. Kennedy, for example, was very sickly as a child. During one school year, he was absent 65 out of 88 school days. Accompanying the attendance card on display is a handwritten note from his mother, Rose, detailing the illnesses he had suffered during that year, including measles, meningitis and bronchitis.

Also on display in the grade-school section is the current President Bush’s first-grade report card. He received all A’s. Many years later, he graduated from Yale with a degree in history.

The next room is devoted to the high school years and showcases the very different experiences the future leaders had — largely because of money or lack thereof. Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, went to a modest public high school in Texas, while Franklin Roosevelt attended the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts. (Current cost for boarders is almost $40,000, according to the school Web site.) Roosevelt did well at Groton and ranked high in his class. Johnson, on the other hand, was not a star student.

Another high-performing student was Bill Clinton, who is shown in a picture from 1963 with his fellow National Merit semifinalists from Hot Springs High School.

The next section showcases items from the college years, including letters the future presidents sent to their mothers. Jimmy Carter, for example, was homesick his first few weeks at the Naval Academy in Annapolis and wrote to his mother that he would appreciate it if she would write to him.

“We’ve been here nine days and I can’t understand why you haven’t written yet,” reads his handwritten letter, which is on display.

“I think this is my favorite part of the exhibit,” Ms. Nichols says. “I was really homesick my freshman year, and I can really relate to this letter.”

Some of the future presidents excelled in music — Richard Nixon (whose violin is on display) and Bill Clinton (whose music stand from high school is showcased) — others in sports.

One of the foremost athletes was Gerald Ford, who was offered professional football contracts with the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions but instead opted to go to law school at Yale, where he became a boxing coach and assistant varsity football coach.

It is in the section that showcases sports that visitors have an opportunity for a hands-on activity. They are invited to open the doors to several lockers, and inside each, they will see a screen with a team picture. They are asked to identify where a president stands or sits in the picture and then, to confirm their answer, they can push a button to illuminate the president.

The last portion of the exhibit displays scrapbooks and diplomas and has a five-minute film with snippets of presidential interviews. In one segment, Herbert Hoover, who was orphaned, explains why he chose to go to Stanford University. It was free.

“That no fee more or less fitted my necessity,” he says into the camera.

Hoover’s words illustrate that former presidents came from all walks of life, Ms. Nichols says and adds:

“I hope visitors will take away with them that these extraordinary men have been through some of the same — or similar — experiences as most people go through,” she says. “You may have more in common with them than you think.”

When you go:

What: The “School House to White House” exhibit is on display in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Building.

Where: Constitution Avenue between Seventh and Ninth Streets Northwest.

Admission: Free.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through Labor Day; 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sept. 4 through March 14. Closed Thanksgiving and Dec. 25.

Parking: Limited metered street parking and pay-parking garages are available.

Metro: The Archives-Navy Memorial stop on the Yellow or Green lines.

Information: 202/357-5000 or www.archives.gov.

Notes: There is small snack bar but no full-service restaurant. The National Archives, however, is surrounded by downtown restaurants and cafes as well as other museums with food service.

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