Interview with George Cleveland, reconciliation advocate and grandson of President Grover Cleveland

This is the third in my interview series. In the first two posts, I speak with publisher Ikaika Hussey and “super-teacher” Amy Perruso. I met George Cleveland through Kahu Dr. Kaleo Patterson, with whom Cleveland has done work on reconciliation, a topic about which I’m very keen.
‘Umi Perkins: Can you tell us (as briefly or extended as you like) about your background? I understand you went to prep school in my wife’s hometown, for instance.
George Cleveland: I was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. A wonderful town even though back then people used to cringe when you said you are from Baltimore. ​

George Cleveland often stands in as President Cleveland for historical reenactments

​It was a pretty sheltered upbringing that changed a lot when I got out of town and went to boarding school in Lenox, Massachusetts. It was an unusual school in that it was extremely culturally diverse for that time; the late 1960’s. We had what became the only seriously successful program for Native Americans in an eastern prep school. Interesting that at that time, there were around 8 prep/boarding schools in Lenox. Now there are none. Without significant endowments, even the oldest school couldn’t make it through the 70’s.
I lived in Boston for a couple of years after high school and moved to New Hampshire. Among other things, I worked as a professional clown, was backman on a lobster boat and sold waterbeds. College and I never seemed to get along too well.​
How did it come to be that Grover Cleveland’s grandson is so young and spry in 2015?
​Who me?? My family stretched out the generations. Grover Cleveland was born in 1837. He married my grandmother in the White House in 1886. She was 21… Grover knew her prenatally as she was the daughter of his law partner in Buffalo, NY. My father was born in 1897. He met and married my mother in 1943 when she was teaching his children from his first marriage. We dropped two generations.​
​Oddly, I am always asked what he was like. He died in 1908, so our paths did not cross. My grandmother died in 1948, so I just missed knowing her.
I like to remind people that I had TWO sets of grandparents. My maternal grandparents were from a tiny village in Scotland. My grandfather went to sea when he was 14 and worked his way up to captain.​
I find it interesting that you, like Lorrin Thurston’s grandson (who is still alive) seem to side with your grandfather. You’ve said things to that effect.

​Well…he was right!

It can be a little tricky siding with someone from that long ago whom you did not know personally. But…it is my understanding that my grandparents and Queen Liliuokalani admired each other. And I know that one of the first things Grover tried to do when he came back into office in 1893 was to get the overthrow overthrown. AND I know that not seeing the Kingdom reinstated was one of the big disappointments of his life. ​

​When I speak as part of Grover’s ohana, I try and keep it to what I know from historical record and not what I think he thought. That being said, it is my understanding that when news reached him that the Queen would not be reinstated, he said something to the effect of, “So, Hawai’i is ours.” ​I see this simple statement as sadness that “manifest destiny” and greed had won out over what was just and right.

–there is a bit of irony that I am writing this only two days before Liliuokalani’s birthday and on the day when President Obama is about to officially rename Mt. McKinley in Alaska.
Like you, I have some illustrious ancestors, though no presidents:). A great-granduncle of mine is Lew Wallace, for instance, the man who wrote Ben Hur. My grandfather’s name is Wallace Perkins, after that line of the family. I’ve become somewhat obsessed with him. How much do  you think ancestry shapes us?

​That is a really tough question to answer. Would I still be a nice guy if a grandfather had been a serial killer? How would that guilt and shame inform my life choices? How hard would it be to move beyond those feelings? Would my life involve atoning for that?

I don’t know what it’s like NOT to be the grandson of a President. It has been a burden at times, but I’m way beyond that now.

Somewhere ALL of our ancestors did things we may not be proud of. Maybe the simple answer is to learn from their mistakes and do what we can to make the world more livable for more people. Do it because it’s the right thing to do and not an offshoot of ancestral guilt or shame.

I’m a White Anglo Saxon Protestant of Northern European and Celtic descent as far back as the Dark Ages. I think it’s safe to say that this race has done more to impact this planet than anything since the Big Bang. So much potential has been misplaced…
What’s your plan? (vague question, I know) – by that I mean what has driven you in life?
​Sheesh… This has changed a lot over the years and will probably change a few more times. ​
​I’d like to be a simple beacon to help people off the rocks…​
Can you talk about your work on reconciliation (which is how we came to meet)?

​Around 10 years ago when I was first contacted by Kaleo Patterson and Ha’aheo Guanson, I knew next to nothing about Hawai’i and its history. When I first visited (2006?) I was incredibly honored to stay with people like Kekuni Blaisdell and Meleanna Meyer. The things they showed me; the people I met, melded into my soul.

Kumu John Lake’s halau did a presentation for me. I sat in a chair and watched slackjawed as Kumu John translated for me in my ear. It was quite simply one of the most profound experiences of my life.

Reconciliation. It’s that which makes us able to move forward unshackled. It’s a vital process whether from one person to another or one people to another.​
​It would be presumptuous of me to say what I think is right for the Hawaiian people. ​BUT…I DO have some thoughts. The United States has done a bang up job of banging up Hawai’i; probably more than any other country. I believe the US has a moral obligation to continue and COMPLETE the removal of all potentially dangerous ordnance from Hawaiian lands and waters. And all the junk that goes with it. I haven’t been there, but I’d like to see substantial effort (money) put into doing whatever is necessary to get Kaho’olawe back together.
I love space exploration, but that doesn’t mean putting a telescope on a sacred site. If I have to pee in New York City, I don’t do it on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Reconciliation isn’t just about trying to mitigate and correct past wrongs by governments and armies. Reconciliation includes reaching out to friends, neighbors, strangers, smelly people and seeing what we can do for them right NOW. Just be there for someone in some kind of helpful way.
Promote peace. One of my great mentors defined “peace” as “the absence of emotional urgency”. It works for me. –when I let it!
What are your thoughts on history? I know you were the keynote speaker at National History Day, for example, which my students participate in.
​What is more important than history? It’s what we are as individuals and as humans. Even if you have no idea of your lineage, you still have history. It informs our present and our future.
There are some GREAT history teachers out there at the middle and high school levels. They are trying to teach history not as a linear progression of dates to be memorized, but as a living thing that is with us now. These teachers are doing what I see you trying to do, Umi. I have a good friend in Buffalo, NY who is trying to teach the teachers how to better befriend history; he takes them on field trips all summer.
I think it’s important for people to realize that NO ONE has a boring history. I work in a senior center. We have many participants who saw horrible and dramatic action in battle. We have many participants who saw incredible life changing events on the homefront. Some of those homefront stories are pretty dramatic too.
National History Day is a tremendous program. But as I said when I spoke to a group there, how many who have won History Day awards will get the same reception when they get home as the football team ​
​would?? Will the mayor recognize their feat? Will they ride through their village on the fire truck? Gotta fix that…​

Any final thoughts – for Hawaiians or others?
​My final thoughts are ones of gratitude for the patience and understanding shown to me by the people I’ve met who are working FOR Hawai’i. Not just for preservation, but for continuation.
The spiritual nature of things is more palpable in Hawai’i than any place I’ve ever been.
I have very close friends in Hawai’i, even if it’s only a Facebook friendship at times. AND, I’ve gotten flamed a few times for hanging out with and agreeing with some of them!
I send much Aloha to all of them, to all your readers, and to you, Umi. Mahalo for all you are doing.
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One response to “Interview with George Cleveland, reconciliation advocate and grandson of President Grover Cleveland

  1. Pingback: Interview with George Cleveland, reconciliation advocate and grandson of President Grover Cleveland | Kūʻokoʻa Alo

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