Saint Paul's Church, Freedom of the Press and Doc Randall
Richard J. Garfunkel
March 16, 2006
Saint Paul’s Church is a national landmark, located at 897 South Columbus Avenue, or Route 22, that is mostly under the collective radar screen for more than a majority of Westchester’s denizens. It is an old church and the Congregation formally had services there in the parish from 1665 until 1977. It was at this site in 1733 that the so-called “Great Election” was held and there were obvious voting irregularities (seems nothing has really changed!). As a young lad in the Mount Vernon public schools I was made aware of the importance of John Peter Zenger’s role in the advancement of “Freedom of the Press.” I never went on a class trip there, but at times I drove down to that area to fill up my car at “Oil City”. Anyone old enough to remember, would know that in 1963, one could get “no-name” gas at “Oil City” for about 18 cent per gallon.
Of course Saint Paul’s was still an operating church up until 1977 and even though it was restored to its 18th century appearance in 1942 and dedicated as a “National Landmark” on July 5, 1943, it wasn’t a normal place for me to visit in the 1950’s. When I was 22 and fresh out of college, I knew little of the Church and the surrounding cemetery, until I decided to take a drive out there with my new Honeywell Spotmatic 35 mm camera.
With my tripod, I posed in front of the imposing grave of one Thomas Flenders, who died in 1831 at the age of 43 and his wife Miriam who was also buried there in 1858. Years later on, when I was 49 years old, I came back to Saint Paul’s, and looked for the monument. It wasn’t easy to find and a very attractive young (female) guide helped locate it and I posed for another self-portrait. Unfortunately there was quite a difference between the two photos.
On July 4th every year, the City of Mount Vernon, and I assume the National Park Service, sponsors a reading of the Declaration of Independence there. This has been an ongoing tradition that started in the late 1890’s and a member of the Banning family has done the reading continuously. The latest Banning was a middle-aged fellow named Jack. I had gotten to know Jack through a local political campaign and a mutual friend from White Plains, where I had lived from 1969 to 2002. Jack Banning was a political creature and also ran a memorabilia store on 9th Avenue in New York City that featured; political items, World’s Fair mementos, Marilyn Monroe artifacts and pictures, along with a fabulous French art noveau and deco print collection, from the Empire Age up to the era of the ex-patriots in the 1920’s. When my manufacturing business was located at 22 West 19th Street I would, on a warm day, saunter up to 9th Avenue to ogle at his inventory. Jack featured original signed copies of the most famous Tom Kelly photographed calendar, featuring Marilyn Monroe. Later on when Ms. Monroe was asked what she had on when she slept, it is reported that she answered, “The radio!”
It was an exceedingly hot July 4th day in 1997 when I finished playing at the County Tennis courts off the Bronx River Parkway in Scarsdale, just east of the Hartsdale Railroad Station. On a larkish whim I decided to go down to Mount Vernon to hear the reading of the Declaration of Independence. I hopped into my 1982 Jaguar, which I still am nursing along, kissed my wife Linda goodbye, and told her of my plans. She had an incredulous look of disbelief on her face, but I had made up my mind to go.
It doesn’t take long to go down the Bronx River Parkway to the Cross County and then get off at Columbus Avenue and go south. In fifteen or so minutes I was in front of the church, on the lower part of Route 22. Saint Paul’s Church still stands the same way as it stood a few hundred years earlier. A few score of folding chairs were set up on the lawn in front of the side building, and before long, the social and political elite of Mount Vernon started to filter onto the grounds. It was a stirring sight finally when everyone was seated and dressed in their best white seersucker suits and floral dresses. Many of the women had large hats to protect themselves from the searing high noon sun of early July.
The festivities were started by an impassioned rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner played by the Mount Vernon Band and led by the venerable “Doc” Randall, of AB Davis fame. “Doc,” I had learned, had been conducting at this event for decades. I had not seen him in almost 35 years, but even though I did not know him personally, he looked quite the same, and I could recognize him with ease. He looked great in his white suit and matching white “bucks.” It was like being in a Rod Serling episode of the “Twilight Zone.” I was now 52 years old and “Doc” looked just about the same as he did in 1963. His wife had taken a seat in front of me not knowing that I knew her. So I said to the person next to me, while there was a short break, in a voice that I knew she would here, that I was amazed that “Doc” Randall could still stand and perform since I believed he was way over 90 years old! (Of course he wasn’t and I knew it, and it was a joke!) Well she immediately turned around, and started to correct my ridiculous aside. But before she could get a word in edgewise I laughed out loud and apologized. I said I was a former student and was only kidding. Her grimaced wracked face melted down quickly into a broad smile and she turned back to the ongoing proceeding. The band, led ably by Professor Randall, played more patriotic tunes, and everyone was quite pleased. Jack Banning got to read the Declaration of Independence and before long the event was over, the crowd stood up and started to disappear. For sure I was much better for the experience. I told all my Davis buddies about the glowing event. Unfortunately it wasn’t long after that day that I read that “Doc” Randall had died from cancer. I was so glad that I had gone to Saint Paul’s to hear that reading and see him conduct his last concert. What I would have missed.