When President Theodore Roosevelt dedicated Pennsylvania’s Capitol building in October 1906, he said, “This is the handsomest building I ever saw.” For 80 years after its construction in Harrisburg the Capitol stood as the tallest structure between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The seat of Pennsylvania’s government still inspires all those who walk under its majestic dome modeled after Michelangelo’s design for St. Peter’s Basilica.
News that Governor Tom Wolf has ordered our State Capitol closed for several days should give all Pennsylvanians pause. The decision is understandable, but also heartbreaking. It comes in the wake of the treasonous attack on our nation’s Capitol in Washington and in anticipation of more possible violence tied to the inauguration of Pennsylvania’s native son, Joe Biden.
As the leader of an organization called The Pennsylvania Society, founded seven years prior to Roosevelt’s visit to Harrisburg that day, and which maintains a centuries-long commitment to civility, the news hit particularly hard — for me and for our thousands of members across the Commonwealth and around the world.
Yes, the Capitol complex has been restricted to visitors recently due to the pandemic, but the very idea that its doors will be ordered closed, shuttered even if only for several days, says so much about where we are today as a nation. It says so much about how we treat one another and the democratic institutions of government we hold dear.
With no affiliation to any particular political party, The Pennsylvania Society exists for the sole purpose of celebrating service to the Commonwealth with an abiding respect for one another. It’s a notion that dates back even further, to our founder William Penn, who sought to establish a land that would be governed by just laws and tolerant of all who live here.
Tolerance has certainly been in short supply of late. As has civility. Among Teddy Roosevelt’s most famous quotes is, “Speak softly and carry a big stick — you will go far.” But most don’t know the next sentence from that quote: “If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble.”
My hope is, as we usher in a new administration this week in Washington, we use this as a time to remember there is so much more that binds us together as Pennsylvanians and Americans than what separates us. You can see it on the very walls of our State Capitol. Architect Joseph Huston blended various Renaissance styles with motifs featuring Pennsylvania’s achievements in labor, industry and history, making our remarkable Capitol uniquely American.
In the 115 years since, Pennsylvanians have come together at critical times to advance our society in their own meaningful ways. Among them are Jonas Salk, who helped to create the first polio vaccine, and Fred Rogers who created a neighborhood that made millions of children feel special. Talk about a man who understood the power of civility! It’s one reason Pittsburgh’s Mr. Rogers was the recipient of The Pennsylvania Society Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement in 1990.
Our State Capitol is a blend of concrete, steel, tile, brick and glass. Like Pennsylvania itself its sum is greater than its parts. Some of our parts are broken right now. Let’s embrace this moment, invite more civility back into our lives, and work to ensure this is the last time our beautiful Capitol is ever forced to close.
Edward J. Sheehan, Jr. is President of The Pennsylvania Society and serves as the President and CEO of Pennsylvania headquartered Concurrent Technologies Corporation. Learn more at www.PASociety.com.