The other day I got a press release about the latest immortals inducted into the Thermal Spray Hall of Fame. "It's just outside Cleveland," a spokesman told me when I followed up by phone. It's not exactly a hall, he said, or even a room. More like a display panel. Then, mustering all his powers of understatement, he added, "If you think of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it's not like that." Maybe he was afraid I was planning to visit.
Not to worry. I was just savoring the idea that the American landscape is littered with halls of fame that frequently lack the hall, and also, well, the fame. They honor achievement in fields where ticker-tape parades and groupies are not generally part of the deal structure. Dairy farming, for instance.
So the Agricultural Hall of Fame, in Bonner Springs, Kansas, does right by the likes of Carl Gustav Patrick DeLaval, inventor of the DeLaval high-speed centrifugal cream separator. And if you think this nation does not owe a profound debt of gratitude to Mr. DeLaval, ask yourself: If we couldn't separate the cream, how would we whip it? And if we couldn't whip it, where would strawberry shortcake be?
Some halls of fame are admittedly just a nice way for industries to give loyal timeservers a pat on the back. The California Pharmacy Hall of Fame, for instance, recently inducted one pill-trade titan for working "tirelessly to keep pharmacy in high regard with policymakers." Translation: He's a lobbyist. There's also an Insurance Hall of Fame, but they lost me with the sentence on their Web site beginning, "What binds these Laureates together is...." Could it be their genius at writing the artful non-renewal notice? I'll never know. My list of 1,000 things to do before I die also does not include a visit to the Alabama Road Builders Hall of Fame (though an exhibition on chain gangs might just change my mind).
I'm more interested in halls of fame where there is an element of hapless love in play. The American Yo-Yo Association Hall of Fame in Chico, California, for instance, celebrates heroes like Gus Somera, who "made himself a legend as a yo-yo demonstrator...." The National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum in Hayward, Wisconsin, includes a "Shrine to Anglers" in the form of a 143-foot-long, four-and-a-half-story-tall "hand-sculpted" likeness of a leaping muskellunge. That's a kind of fish, and there's an observation platform in its gaping mouth where 20 people at a time can stand behind the spiky teeth and imagine what it might be like for a fishing lure to come whizzing out of the sky and whisk them off into eternity.
The idea is clearly to attract tourists, and location matters. The New York-based National Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum asks "Why Oneonta?" on its Web site. And the National Distance Running Hall of Fame asks "Why Utica?" Neither comes out and says: "Hey, aren't we at least worth a side trip from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown?"
All this suggests that, with a little marketing savvy, the possibilities for celebrating the unfamous are limitless. Why not, for instance, a High School Principals' Hall of Fame, celebrating achievement with the raised eyebrow and lowered expectations? Or how about a Fast Food Workers' Hall of Fame? (Did you know Eileen Edwards used to work at McDonald's before she got a makeover and became Shania Twain?) Think big. How about a Breathing In and Breathing Out Hall of Fame? The good news: Congratulations! You're one of our laureates.
The bad news: Your membership expires when you do.
Richard Conniff's selection to the Richard Conniff Hall of Fame is currently pending.