Man defends Washington day

Rockville resident pushes official holiday for first president

February 12, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Happy Presidents Day. Before you take off for the three-day weekend or ply the shopping malls and car dealerships for a holiday bargain, Jason Bezis would like to set the record straight.

"Presidents Day is one of the greatest hoaxes in modern American history," the 25-year-old Rockville resident says. "There is no basis for saying it's a federal holiday."

He's right. Contrary to what your calendar might say or what you might hear from businesses, government agencies and the U.S. Postal Service, Feb. 15 is officially Washington's Birthday.

Some time in the past 30 years, the federal holiday has been erroneously replaced with Presidents Day in everything from holiday announcements to advertisements to parades.

Bezis has waged a one-man public awareness campaign to correct the errors and protect our nation's first president.

He has successfully persuaded the New York Stock Exchange, World Almanac and the Christian Science Monitor, among other publications, to restore usage of Washington's Birthday.

This year he can add The Sun to that list.

"I don't want to sound sanctimonious," Bezis said. "If the law says it's Washington's Birthday, we are obligated to follow the law until it changes."

The law dates to 1885, when President Chester A. Arthur made Washington's Birthday a federal holiday. It was originally celebrated on Washington's birthday, Feb. 22. Congress later moved the holiday to the third Monday in February as part of the Monday Holiday Act, which took effect in 1971. But the official holiday, Washington's Birthday, remained the same. During the past three decades it "morphed" into Presidents Day, Bezis said.

The change coincided with the decline in public celebrations marking the holiday, Bezis said. For many years, cities fired cannon, trimmed windows with red, white and blue bunting and held parades to celebrate Washington's legacy.

Today, Bezis sadly notes, the day is defined by retail and tourism interests, two groups that pushed for Congress to make Washington's Birthday a Monday holiday.

Bezis has not identified the origin of the Presidents Day error. Perhaps a mix-up occurred because Washington's Birthday is not observed on his real birthday, Bezis said. Or maybe people became confused by the 12 states that have adopted Presidents Day as an official state holiday, he said. (Thirty-one states, including Maryland, celebrate Washington's Birthday. Seven recognize Washington-Lincoln Day.)

Whatever the problem, no one stepped forward to correct the inaccuracies -- until Bezis.

Growing up in Livermore, Calif., Bezis was a precocious student of history. In kindergarten, he fondly recalled arguing passionately with teachers that George Washington was still alive.

"Why would we celebrate his birthday if he wasn't?" he reasoned.

As a junior high school student, he organized a 30th anniversary celebration of his school. School officials baked a giant cake and buried a time capsule containing gym clothes, a school yearbook and Bezis' math test.

At Livermore High School, Bezis completed a history of the first 100 years of his school, interviewing alumni from as early as 1918.

Bezis would draw on his talent for historical research at George Washington University, where he discovered that the university no longer had a birthday celebration for the president.

This year Bezis will have a reason to return to his alma mater. George Washington University will celebrate Washington's Birthday on Feb. 22 with a candlelight procession through campus, a reading of Washington's last will and testament, and a bonfire, said Barbara Porter, a university spokeswoman.

Porter said Bezis' requests contributed to the university's decision to organize the event.

"It's part of an overall celebration. Because of the 200th anniversary of Washington's death, we are paying more attention to George Washington in general," she said.

Bezis relishes such victories. His office is stacked deep with notes, newspaper clippings and other reference materials gathered over the years. Throughout his campaign, the amateur historian has maintained a childlike enthusiasm for the topic, growing animated when discussing the historical minutiae of Washington's life.

"Just tell me to shut up if you want," he said at one point.

More often than not, his campaign is met with indifference.

That was the case when he lobbied the U.S. Postal Service for months to recognize Washington's Birthday. Last year, he was elated when he received a letter from a Postal Service customer service representative informing him that the change would go into effect in 1999.

But when he visited his post office recently, Bezis' heart sank. An official notice announced that the office would be closed for "Presidents Day."

"I thought, `I can't do this. It's more than one person can do. I have my own life to lead. I can't be the George Washington police,' " he said.

Terry Hinch, a spokesman for the Postal Service, said he was not aware of Bezis' request. He knew of no plans to change the holiday, and the employee who wrote the letter is no longer there.

"The calendar on my desk says Presidents Day," he said.

In another reminder of how much work remains to be done, Bezis learned that, officially, he will not be off Monday for Washington's Birthday. His employer, Jack Faucett Associates, a public policy consulting firm based in Bethesda, recognizes the day as Presidents Day.

Bezis plans to spend it at the Washington's Birthday parade in Alexandria and maybe Mount Vernon if he has time.

"I want to find some way to get closure on this because there are so many interesting things in the world to study," he said.

Pub Date: 2/12/99

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