I heart John Baer: Move Pennsylvania Society weekend from NYC to Philly

Ed Rendell and others at 2006 Pennsylvania Society dinner in New York City.
Ed Rendell and others at 2006 Pennsylvania Society dinner in New York City.

One of the largest and, admittedly, one of the many embarrassments of old Philadelphia is that the annual Pennsylvania Society dinner is held in midtown Manhattan.

It seems like a suggestion that Pennsylvania’s largest city – the city of firsts, the workshop of the world, the first great city of the United States – isn’t good enough. Or as Fred Anton, head of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, told eminent Daily News columnist John Baer, Philly isn’t “exotic” enough.  His recent most column lambasted the 109-year-old celebration:

Cancel next month’s Pennsylvania Society weekend in New York City, or curtail it, or work on moving it to its home state.

In the worst economy since the Great Depression, with 1.2 million jobs lost this year, with state unemployment at 5.7 percent, the highest rate since right after Gov. Rendell took office in ’03, with the city facing job cuts and a $1 billion shortfall, it just strikes me as a tad unseemly to, you know, party hearty. [Source]

But, this deal is even more twisted than even Baer acknowledges, though I would like to take this opportunity to point out that I was once in a group photo with him.

People get in a tizzy each year about this even being in New York, particularly this year because the economy is bad, people are pointing fingers and guys like John Baer like to add to the fracas with widely read columns.

Check the society’s mission:

The Society is a non-profit, charitable organization with nearly two thousand members around the Commonwealth, the United States and the world.  It is not affiliated with any particular political party, business or profession.  Its purpose is to honor achievement, to reward excellence, to promote good will and understanding and to celebrate service to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and to humanity in general.

So, yeah, everyone says it sucks that a group that wants to “celebrate” anything to do with Pennsylvania wouldn’t hold its blowout even in Philly, or at least on a rotating basis between Philly and Pittsburgh – throw in Hershey for the midstate, folks.

Particularly in recent years, Philly has developed a high brow scene. I certainly haven’t seen it for myself, but I bet Philadelphia can show a good time to rich folks looking to spend big cash. If it’s more an excuse to get away from local media, well, I would think New York isn’t far enough with today’s Youtube generation.

Still, you know all of that.

Here’s what I think makes this situation even worse and should make anyone with half a heart want to bring this thing back to Philly – or Philly and elsewhere in Pennsylvania. The dinner has lost its roots in a troubling way.

From the Society’s own history page:

In 1899, an historian and native Pennsylvanian named James Barr Ferree, who was living in New York City, invited 55 fellow Pennsylvanians living in New York to join him for dinner at The Waldorf=Astoria Hotel.  While feasting on oysters and Delmonico steaks, they decided to form a group known initially as “The Pennsylvania Society of New York.”  Their goal was to establish a society “uniting all Pennsylvanians at home and away from home in bonds of friendship and devotion to their native or adopted state.”

They also decided to meet for dinner every year, same time, same place. This was the era when The Waldorf=Astoria still occupied the site where the Empire State Building would climb to the clouds thirty years later.

The following year in 1900, a young British journalist and Member of Parliament dropped in and regaled the diners with stories about his adventures in the Boer War in South Africa.  The young man’s name was Winston Churchill, and thus began a tradition of having a guest speaker of interest at the dinner. [Source]

OK, the last bit was just because it’s cool.

The first graf is what interests me. The Society’s very foundation was born out of a desire to celebrate the Pennsylvania diaspora. Some dude in New York who still repped the Keystone State wanted to show love.

Making it an annual slob fest in New York because some think it more “exotic” is even more an embarrassment. It went from Pa. pride to a Pa. getaway.

And, don’t misunderstand. This is a big event for power players, naturally many of them with rich ties to Philly. Last year’s event was seen as a big showcasing of mayoral contenders.

It can only be two ways. Rotate its location and feature prominently former Pennsylvanians or an even more sensible return to Pennsylvania. Blow the big cash in Philadelphia. Hell, there might be a casino soon, too.

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