A collection of bicentennial biographies from Chautauqua County, N.Y. featuring June Card (Dunkirk), Daniel E. Button (Dunkirk), John Birdsall (Mayville), John Bidwell (Riply) and Walter Washington (Jamestown). Originally airing on local radio stations April 11 – April 15, 2011.
No. 66 – June Card
Chautauqua County has had its fair share of international celebrities over the years. One of the individuals who is often overlooked is a famous soprano and stage director from northern Chautauqua County.
June Card was born on April 10, 1942 in Dunkirk. After high school she studied singing at the Mannes College The New School for Music. While a student she began her career performing as an ensemble member in the original Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, including the opening night. She also appeared in the ensemble of the original cast of The Unsinkable Molly Brown and then appeared in the ensemble of the original production of The Gay Life.
Card made her professional opera debut in 1963 as thSe outhern Girl in the world premiere of Gentlemen, Be Seated! at the New York City Opera. She then moved to Germany to perform the rest of the decade, ultimately forging a more than 30-year long partnership with the Frankfurt Opera. During her long Opera career, Card appeared in several world premieres.
Card also appeared as a guest artist with major opera houses internationally and worked as a soloist in the oratorio repertoire. She was also been awarded the title “Chamber singer” by both the Frankfurt and Munich Operas.
In recent years she has been active as a stage director for opera productions in Germany, France and America, and worked as a voice teacher and master class instructor.
No. 67 – Daniel E. Button
Daniel E. Button was born November 1, 1917 in Dunkirk. He graduated from the University of Delaware in 1938 and received a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1939.
Button immediately began making a name for himself as a journalist. He wrote for the Wilmington Morning News in Delaware and the Associated Press from 1943 until 1947. That same year he turned to public relations at the University of Delaware. After Delaware, Button served as assistant to the president of the State University of New York from 1952 until 1958. Button returned to the newspaper business in 1960, serving as executive editor of the Albany Times-Union until 1966.
By this time Button had a made quite a name for himself in the Albany area and he decided to run for Congress, being elected in 1966 as a Republican in a traditionally heavily Democratic district. He served from January 3, 1967 until January 3, 1971. He unsuccessfully ran for re-election in 1970 as an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.
Following his stint in Congress, button served as president of the National Arthritis Foundation (1971-75) and was editor of the national consumer magazine Science Digest (1976-80). He also published a book entitled “Take City Hall” about Albany politics (2003). From 1994 to 2003 he was executive assistant to the president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York State.
Button spent his final years in Delmar, N.Y. He died on March 7, 2009 at the age of 91 in the Albany Medical Center in Albany, N.Y.
No. 68 – John Birdsall
Birdsall was born in Chenango County, N.Y. in 1802. It is said he benefited from a liberal education at some of the eastern colleges and began studying law in the office of his uncle, James Birdsall. By 1817, he entered the office of Robert Monell as a student. He was admitted to the bar before even becoming of legal age and became the law partner of Monell’s.
In 1823, Birdsall moved to Mayville to practice law, where his shining abilities soon attracted attention and led to his appointment as Circuit Judge of the 8th Circuit. He was just 25 years old. While serving as circuit judge, Birdsall lived in Rochester, but returned to Chautauqua County in 1829 following ill health. In 1831 he represented Chautauqua county in the New York State Assembly. From 1832 to 1834, Birdsall served in the New York State Senate.
In 1837 Birdsall is said to have moved to Texas and began a law partnership with Thomas J. Gazley in Harrisburg (now Houston). There he met and became friends with Sam Houston. Houston appointed Birdsall Attorney General of the Republic on August 15, 1837, and Birdsall held that post until Houston appointed him chief justice pro tempore of the Supreme Court of the Republic following the death of Chief Justice James Collingsworth in July 1838. The Senate, however, did not confirm his appointment. Birdsall served as chief justice for approximately one month from November to December, never sat at any session of the court, and therefore wrote no opinion.
He went into legal practice with Sam Houston in January 1839 but died of yellow fever on July 22, 1839. He was the first individual to be interred at Houston’s Glendale Cemetery.
No. 69 – John Bidwell
John Bidwell was known throughout California and across the nation as an important pioneer, farmer, soldier, statesman, politician, prohibitionist and philanthropist. He is famous for leading one of the first emigrant parties, known as the Bartleson-Bidwell Party, along the California Trail, and for founding Chico, Calif.
Bidwell was born August 5, 1819 in Ripley. His family moved to Erie, Pa. when he was only 10, and then to Ashtabula, Ohio when he was 12. At the age 17, he attended and shortly thereafter became Principal of Kingsville Academy.
In 1841 Bidwell became one of the first emigrants on the California Trail. Shortly after his arrival in California, John Sutter employed Bidwell as his business manager. Bidwell soon discovered gold on the Feather River, and established a productive claim in advance of the California Gold Rush. He obtained land grants in 1844 and 1845, only to later sell them so he could establish a ranch and farm on Chico Creek. That area would eventually be developed into the city of Chico, Calif.
Bidwell fought in the Mexican-American War and obtained the rank of major. He served in the California Senate in 1849, supervised the census of California in 1850 and again in 1860. He was a delegate to the 1860 national convention of the Democratic Party. Four years later, he was a delegate to the national convention of the Republican Party and was a Republican member of Congress from 1865 to 1867. Fort Bidwell was built in 1865 and named in his honor.
In 1868 Bidwell married Annie Kennedy, the daughter of a socially prominent, high ranking Washington official. Both President Andrew Johnson and future President Ulysses S. Grant attended the ceremony. Upon arrival in Chico, the Bidwells used their mansion extensively for entertainment of friends. Some of the guests over the years included President Rutherford B. Hayes, General William T. Sherman and Susan B. Anthony.
In 1875 Bidwell ran for Governor of California on the Anti-Monopoly Party ticket. He was also the Prohibition Party candidate for governor in 1880. In 1892, he was the Prohibition Party candidate for President of the United States. He died on April 4, 1900.
No. 70 – Walter Edward Washington
Washington’s mother died when he was 6. His father never remarried and worked in a factory and also as a bellhop, hotel valet and cook. Washington was educated in the Jamestown public school system and ran track. He also managed the football team at Jamestown High School. He was one of two African-Americans in his 400-member senior class.
In 1934, Washington enrolled in Howard University. He majored in public administration and sociology and graduated in 1938. For the next four years, he took night classes at American University to study public administration. He received his law degree from Howard in 1948. In September 1941, he began his career in government as a junior housing assistant – an entry-level white-collar job, with the Washington D.C. Alley Dwelling Authority, later renamed the Capital Housing Authority. The agency had been established in 1934 to find homes for the thousands of city residents living in slums.
Washington worked his way up and in 1961 he became director of the Capitol Housing Authority. He pushed to get more people into public housing by raising the income eligibility ceilings, pioneered efforts to rent buildings from private landlords and then re-rent them to low-income tenants, and pressed for federal rent supplements.
In 1966 Washington accepted a chance to head what he called the “Supreme Court of housing,” signing on as director of public housing for New York City. Within a year, however, President Lyndon Johnson issued orders reorganizing the District of Columbia government and Washington was his first choice to head the new government. He was appointed mayor-commissioner in 1967, becoming the first African-American chief executive of a major U.S. city and kept the job in the District of Columbia’s first mayoral election. He remained mayor until Jan. 2, 1979, when Marion Barry, who defeated him the previous fall, was inaugurated.
Walter Washington died in October 2003. His survivors include his wife Mary, a daughter from his first marriage, two stepchildren, four grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter.
Ref: African-American Registry; Wikipedia
Bicentennial Biographies is a not-for-profit radio project designed to raise awareness and increase interest in local history. It is brought to you as a public service by the Chautauqua County Historical Society throughout 2011 to celebrate the county’s 200th birthday. To learn more, visit www.McClurgMuseum.org or contact your local historical society.
– J. Sample