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Remembering Monroe
A big man, walking in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers


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Charles A. Donovan

His nickname was Monroe. According to my cousin Joe King, the reason was that he could recite the Monroe Doctrine from memory.

That feat certainly is worthy of a nickname. At just shy of a thousand words, the Monroe Doctrine — enunciated by Pres. James Monroe in his 1823 State of the Union address — is a mouthful.

Monroe’s real name was James Ryan Donovan. He passed away six years ago this spring. He was a brilliant man with a big personality and major appetites, and his departure left a clearing where once a mighty oak had stood.

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Dad was 6 foot 3 and played some football in college. Everything about him was big — even the mundane majesty with which he would crack his favorite pistachio nuts or task one of his ten children to fetch him a “globber” of ice cream on a hot summer day.

“Big Jim” Donovan — only a privileged few could call him Monroe — was a man of the road. It was his job — jobs, actually — over many years. He sold pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for decades. He traveled four or five days a week, three weeks or more per month, to feed the growing brood he and his wife, Mary, were raising. He held forth on his exploits behind the wheel with all the relish of a Richard Petty.

By Dad’s reckoning — and none could dispute it — he had driven, “conservatively, a million miles.”

Along those miles were historical markers and the rebuilt redoubts of 19th-century forts. On those rare and blessed occasions when we would take a summer vacation by accompanying Dad on a business trip through Ohio or Kentucky, he would stop at these sites and tow us through musty log cabins and historic homes.

Long rifles and gunpowder horns hanging on walls stirred our blood for awhile. But finally we would refuse to troop out of Dad’s company car to read one more sign saying that Morgan’s Raiders had passed this way.

For all these reasons, Monroe was much on my mind this May. The Donovans were on the road again. Long drives took us to Cincinnati and Charlottesville. In our rush to the graduations of our younger daughter and older son, we passed, conservatively, a million historical markers. Monroe doted on his grandchildren. We would have loved for him to be with us, even if we had been forced to stop and read every last marker.

We did manage to squeeze a few historic sites into our travels. Old habits die hard. Two of my siblings, my older daughter, and I made the short drive from the University of Virginia to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. I had been there many times before. It is a magnificent place, as are Washington’s Mount Vernon and Madison’s newly restored Montpelier. They were fitting homes for Founding Fathers.

Then there is President Monroe’s Ash Lawn. After touring Jefferson’s mansion, arriving at Ash Lawn six miles away is a distinct summons back to earth. The house is an awkward hybrid of two structures. The day we visited, it was nearly vacant. A well-informed tour guide sheepishly took us through the rear entrance because it leads to a small but elegant room. “It doesn’t look its best from the actual front,” the guide said.

Ash Lawn was modest in every respect except the panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Late in life, Monroe sold the place to settle debts. He moved to New York to live with his daughter. Leaving Virginia must have been hard. But the love of family — the place we go when we have nowhere else to turn — must have been fair compensation.

It struck me how “Monroe,” after all, was the right nickname for my father. Four score and four years he lived, pushing his children on from the modest house purchased by the sacrifices he and my mother had made.

Dad taught us to honor the faith that had given us life and revere the nation in which we were born. He shared with us his belief in family first, with all politics a distant second. He too was a founding father.

As I watched two of my four children — two of his nine grandchildren — take their degrees, I knew he was looking down with parallel pride. My father left behind his own historical markers: the ones he erected in our hearts.

— Charles A. (Chuck) Donovan is senior research fellow in the DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).



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