By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
It began “almost on a lark,” but has gone on now for 48 years.
On Jan. 20, 1973, the Rev. Paul Messner, now pastor of the Church of the Atonement here and the county’s three other Lutheran churches in Hartwick Seminary, Laurens and West Burlington, had just been released from the Air Force and was living in Washington D.C., a poli-sci student at American University.
When he woke up that morning, an Air Force buddy who was visiting, Brad Crail, asked, “What do you want to do today?”
Before you know it, “almost on a lark,” the young men were driving up Independence Avenue to the Capitol in Crail’s red Toyota to see what they could see of President Richard M. Nixon’s second Inauguration.
Compared to more recent mass Inauguration gatherings – a stark exception, of course, being President Biden’s minimalist ceremony last month – it was intimate, with a crowd of maybe 20,000-25,000 people.
“It wasn’t a huge affair,” Messner said. “We just walked up.”
It turned out to be the last time an Inauguration would be held on the East End of the Capitol, hemmed in by the U.S. Supreme Court building and Library of Congress across the way.
If Messner’s attendance at Nixon’s Inauguration was happenstance, the future was set: Every four years, the local pastor – a lifelong political aficionado – would find himself in Washington D.C. on Jan. 20.
He didn’t miss a one. Count ’em – Nixon (1973), Jimmy Carter (1977), Ronald Reagan (1981, 1985), George H.W. Bush (1989), Bill Clinton (1993, 1997), George W. Bush (2001, 2005), Barack Obama (2009, 2013), Donald Trump (2017) and Joe Biden (2021).
Biden’s Inauguration last month was Messner’s 13th.
“I go whether I voted for the president or not,” he said.
For the next couple of years following Nixon’s Inauguration, the future pastor was realizing a dream, immersing himself in his studies at American University. He would graduate summa cum laude, with a 3.99 GPA. All A’s, except for one B+.
While at American, he married Martha Richtsfeld, a Delhi native and Fox Nursing School graduate, on June 15, 1974. The couple has two grown children, Joshua and Rebekah, and four grandchildren.
In the months leading up to Carter’s Inauguration – Gerald Ford, appointed, then defeated, never underwent an Inauguration – Messner was fully occupied in the Presidential campaign of Mo Udall, the laconic congressman from Arizona.
“If we’d won the New Hampshire primary, we would have had a real run at it,” said Messner. Still, the campaign continued through the 1976 Democratic Convention at Madison Square Garden, where the young aide was in charge of the “balloon drop” accorded to each candidate who delivered a speech.
A high point that never was: Messner just missed Udall’s private meeting at The Plaza with Paul Newman, where the actor pledged his support.
Experiencing the determination of Carter’s “Georgia Mafia,” the pastor wasn’t too enthusiastic – although he’s moreso today – as he headed up to Capitol Hill on Jan. 20, 1977.
While at American University, the young man had worked for the Library of Congress, ferrying books and papers to the Senate and House office buildings, slipping into key hearings during down times.
His boss, Margaret Whitlock, held his job so, when Udall’s Chief of Staff Roger Lewis offered him a full-time legislative assistant’s job in the congressman’s office, Messner felt obligated to return to his old job.
“Are you crazy,” he was told. His original ambition was to become a congressman, U.S. senator, then – who knows? – President. But his ambitions had shifted and he had been accepted that fall at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg.
Still, off he went again to his second Inauguration, Carter’s first and only.
“It was on the East Side of the Capitol for the first time,” he remembered, with a broad view of The Mall, the Washington Monument and, in the far distance, the Lincoln Memorial.
“It was a much grander vista,” Messner said. “A whole different feel.”
In the years that followed, he completed seminary in 1982 and received assignments to North Syracuse, Seward, Sharon Springs and Richmondville. Evangelical Lutheran Church, Hartwick Seminary, was added in 1997. Since 2003, he has shifted to Otsego County, adding Church of the Atonement, St. Mathew in Laurens and St. John, West Burlington, to his portfolio.
And every four years, he returned to Capitol Hill on Jan. 20 for the Presidential Inaugurations, usually with a contingent of high school and college students.
They would arrive the evening the 18th and bunked at a hospitable church. “I’ve slept on floors,” said Messner. “I’ve slept on couches.” The 19th, the group would tour Washington’s many landmarks. The 20th, they would be on Capitol Hill, returning home on the 21st.
Over the years, the crowds grew, pushing spectators farther and farther back toward the Washington Monument. In 1993, the organizers of Bill Clinton’s first Inauguration added Jumbotrons to The Mall, so everyone could see and hear the ceremonies.
By his estimate, the crowds peaked at Barack Obama’s first Inauguration in 2009, where people were packed together, shoulder to shoulder, many crying as they witnessed the swearing-in of the first African American president. About a third of the crowd was black, more than ever, the pastor remembers.
By contrast, Obama’s second Inauguration was among the smaller crowds Messner had seen, as the Great Recession hangover lingered. Riding into D.C. on the Metro, there were only 2-3 people in the car. “Anticlimactic,” he called it.
As for the dispute over Donald Trump’s crowd in 2017, Messner agreed it wasn’t a record, but it “was a large crowd, an enthusiastic crowd, but also some protesters. Everybody was still in a state of shock that this guy had gotten elected.”
His contingent bunked that year in Potomac, Md., where the Rev. Mark Michaels, former rector at Christ Church, Cooperstown, hosted them.
Security was tight, he recalled, but then, it had been tightening Inauguration to Inauguration from those intimate days of Nixon’s second, and spiked upwards in 2001 after Bush v. Gore – the U.S. Supreme Court intervened, giving the prize to the Republican by 457 Florida votes – increased national tensions and brought out protesters.
That continued post-9/11 through Donald Trump’s in 2017, when masked Antifa protesters dressed in black were breaking windows in nearby neighborhoods, and – of course – peaked this year following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Not to mention COVID-19.
So with this, a wistful Pastor Messner pointed his 2016 Jeep from Oneonta toward Washington D.C. Approaching the National Capital, all the bridges over the Potomac were closed. The closest he got to the Capitol was the view from the George Washington Memorial Parkway, on the other side of the river.
He finally crossed over on the Chain Bridge. “Everywhere I saw police, troops and National Guard… in full camo, bulletproof vests,” who were nonetheless “uniformly polite, professional – and young.”
He stopped by his old neighborhood, Northwest D.C., taking photos, including of the apartment in the duplex that was his and Marion’s first home, and passed by Georgetown Lutheran Church, where he had firmed up his vocation.
Day of, as he expected, “the perimeter was twice as wide as usual,” keeping him from getting within four blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue. “You couldn’t get anywhere near the White House.”
He asked one of the soldiers about street vendors, who usually pack the sidewalks, hawking souvenirs. “Sir, we haven’t seen any,” the man replied.
Messner mused, “Why are you going to make up 1,000 T-shirts if you know nobody’s going to be there.” He picked up souvenir copies of the Washington Post and Washington Times.
“I love D.C.,” he explained. “In 2025, when I’m 75, will I still be up to it? I just wanted to go as an American citizen, in my small way, to celebrate America. And I kept my streak.”
Highlights of 13 Inaugurations
Pastor Paul Messner of Oneonta’s the Church of the Atonement was asked to fire off the first memories that come to mind from the 13 Inaugurations he attended. Here they are:
1973: Richard M. Nixon’s second was the last on the Capitol’s East Side, with the U.S. Supreme Court building and Library of Congress across the way creating a more intimate feeling.
1977: Jimmy Carter moved the ceremony to the Capitol’s West Side, with a “much grander vista of the Mall and monuments.
1981: Ronald Reagan’s first. A pastor in Jamestown, Pastor Messner brought a contingent of high school and college students for the first time.
1985: Reagan’s second. It was bitter cold, the wind chill dropping to 9 degree, and wind chill at minus-22. The inaugural parade was cancelled.
1989: George H.W. Bush opened the White House to citizens for the first time since Andrew Jackson’s in 1829, when a drunken mob took over the mansion. This time, things were more sedate, Messner reports. The elder Bush had retired to the presidential quarters, but his son took over on the receiving line, and the pastor was able to shake hands with a future president.
1993: Bill Clinton’s first featured a Jumbotron for the first time, as growing crowds over the year push spectators farther away from the swearing-in.
1997: Bill Clinton’s second. Assigned to Oneonta’s Church of the Atone, Messner was “starting to connect with Hartwick College” and brought an Otsego County contingent to D.C. for the first time.
2001: George W. Bush’s first. Because of the rancor caused by Bush v. Gore – the Supreme Court declared Bush the winner by a 457-vote margin in Florida – protests were rife, and Messner saw security ramped up.
2005: George W. Bush’s second. The president had won “decisively,” the consensus leading to a low turnout.
2009: Barack Obama’s first. “This was the largest, the most people,” many crying, about a third of them black, turning out to welcome the first African American president.
2013: Obama’s second. With recovering from the Great Recession still lagging, the turnout was sparse. Messner took a contingent of only two, Josh Bush of Milford and a friend.
2017: Donald Trump. It may not have been a record crowd, but is “was a large crowd, an enthusiastic crowd, but there were also some problems” in terms of protests. “Everyone was still in a state of shock that this guy had gotten elected,” Messner said.
2021: Joe Biden. After the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, security was tighter than ever. Messner went by himself, and revisited haunts from his years living in District of Columbia, including driving past the apartment where he and Marion lived as newlyweds. He could only get within four blocks of the Mall.