When the Country's Founding Father is Your Founding Father- page 11 | History | Smithsonian
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President William Howard Taft and his sons, Robert, right, and Charles Phelps. (Bettmann / Corbis)

When the Country's Founding Father is Your Founding Father

The descendants of American presidents are the athletic trainers, lawyers, salesmen and executives of everyday life

Thomas Sayre Raleigh, North Carolina

Thomas Sayre
(Courtesy of Clearscapes)
Thomas Sayre, 61, is an accomplished sculptor of public art projects and a founding principal of the Raleigh-based design firm Clearscapes. “What I do has everything to do with how I grew up,” says Sayre. His father, Francis Bowes Sayre Jr., was the dean of the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. for nearly 30 years. Thomas lived on the cathedral grounds and attended St. Albans School there. “At the National Cathedral, I knew all of the stone masons, carvers, stained-glass windowmakers, mosaic-tile setters, sculptors and thinkers. What that tribe of people did was build over many decades a building which expresses important human values,” he says.

Further back in Sayre’s family tree, however, is another prominent leader. His great-grandfather was President Woodrow Wilson. Coincidentally, Wilson, who died in 1924 a full 27 years before his grandson took his appointment, is the only president to be buried at the National Cathedral.

As a young boy, Sayre had the chance to know “Granny Edith”—President Wilson’s second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson. One of his earliest memories is of visiting her at the Woodrow Wilson House, now a museum, on S Street NW in Washington. “She was a very austere woman. I was quite scared of her,” says Sayre. Edith has sometimes been referred to as the first female president of the United States because of her amplified role in the administration after Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919. “There were these crossed Samurai swords in the living room. I remember being very taken by those,” he adds. But, Granny Edith did not share many stories about the president with Sayre.

“I remember hearing from other family members who knew him, probably my grandfather, that he was humorous and sort of devilish with jokes and things. He has this reputation of being this severe, academic and judgmental guy,” says Sayre. “With the family, he was surprisingly loose, singing songs and playing games with his three adoring daughters and his son-in-law, my grandfather.” Sayre’s grandfather, Francis Bowes Sayre Sr., married Jessie Wilson, the middle of Wilson’s three daughters.

Sayre now owns his grandparents’ house on Martha’s Vineyard, where he discovered several trunks in a locked attic closet containing family documents, some typed and handwritten letters from President Wilson to his daughter, Jessie, even Jessie’s entire wedding ensemble “down to the underdrawers” neatly folded. “I have become much more interested,” says Sayre. “I think I am obligated to know a whole lot more about what that stuff really is.”

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