Hail to the chiefs and first ladies

HOWLAND – If there was a First Ladies Day, Eric Apple would be its biggest celebrant, but for now Presidents’ Day will have to do.

Trivia on the women at the right hand of the 43 commanders-in-chief tumbles around his mind and off his tongue quicker than Ida McKinley could knit a slipper in the Oval Office for husband President William McKinley. Maybe even quicker than Florence Harding could supposedly slip poison to President Warren Harding?

“She wrote her husband’s speeches. She poisoned her husband,” Eric said in the kitchen of his parents’ house Sunday afternoon.

“Don’t say that you don’t know,” mother Bonnie Apple jumped in. “He says that, but I don’t know.”

The 48-year-old Niles man works at the Creative Learning Workshop on Elm Road for adults with developmental disabilities, having graduated from the Fairhaven Program. More importantly, he moonlights as a museum curator of sorts.

In his parents’ Howland home the evidence of his passion is on display every surface in his old bedroom is taken up by photos of the first ladies and wall space is starting to become scarce as well. Bonnie and Les Apple have always supported their son’s interest, allowing Eric even more space for his book collection.

Their basement has been taken over by revolving exhibits that Apple sets up based on the month. Right now the room is a mix of black history, Presidents’ Day and the ever-present ladies. A photo of Tina Turner is propped up a few chairs down from the signed portrait of Barbara Bush – who Eric met in 1991.

“Anywhere you go he’s going to have books,” Bonnie said, “I think he’s a speed reader. You have to sit down and read a book and read a word he doesn’t.”

The fascination began somewhere around the age of 9 when Eric began collecting stamps. Since then everything he reads, he seems to absorb. Eric is a walking database on the women closest to the country’s leaders and rattled off a slew fascinating facts:

“Eleanor Roosevelt was criticized for serving the king and queen [of England] hot dogs at Hyde Park,” he said, but on the other end of the spectrum, Nancy Reagan took heat for her exorbitant shopping habits.

“Lou Hoover, she was the worst,” he said and used two fingers to make a beckoning motion, replicating her cold, demanding nature. But he went on to say she was president of the Girl Scouts and died of a stroke coming home from a concert at age 69.

Helen Taft was the first first lady to ride in an automobile and was the brain behind bringing blossoming cherry trees over from Japan. Then there was Lucy Hayes who began the tradition of holding an Easter egg hunt at the White House and banned alcohol there as well.

First lady Pat Nixon was nicknamed Plastic Pat because “she was very quiet,” while Edith Wilson was related to Pocahontas. The facts go on and on.

Eric’s curiosity has taken him to numerous presidential sites, from Harry Truman’s place in Missouri, to the boyhood home of Gerald Ford in Michigan and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia. His favorite though, was the Eisenhower Farm in Gettysburg .

“[The Eisenhowers] moved 27 times because of an Army career,” he said.

Despite his transient nature, Dwight D. Eisenhower still had time for an affair with Kay Summersby, Eric said. He then proceeded to list numeous presidents who took a mistress while in office.

“That’s not very nice, [first lady Mamie Eisenhower] knew nothing about it,” he said.

One of the first historic homes that Eric visited was that of the 15th president James Buchanan, a Federal-style red brick building in Lancaster, Pa. Bonnie remembered the visit fondly.

“It was just the guide there,” she said. “He gave the tour guide a guide.”

It is often the case that Eric knows more than those around him, when it comes to recognizing the nation’s ladies. His initial visit to the White House was similar. Upon first stepping into the executive mansion, he immediately identified a statue of Susan B. Anthony.

“There was a bust of this woman and she was on a three-cent stamp. As soon as he saw it there was immediate recognition,” Bonnie said.

For her, it is amazing to see the knowledge that Eric has accumulated, but also disheartening in the sense that they haven’t been able to find an outlet for it.

“I think he’s a savant to be honest with you,” she said. “I wish there was something we can find that he could do, even in the community. But what?”

For now it will be switching the displays in the basement, reading up on the first ladies to come and maybe even planning a trip to the next presidential house.