By Edward J. Sheehan, Jr
For more than 120 years The Pennsylvania Society has brought together Pennsylvanians from all walks of life to honor achievement, recognize greatness, and contribute to charitable causes benefitting the Commonwealth. With no affiliation to any particular political party, business or profession, The Pennsylvania Society maintains its centuries-long commitment to civility, where members celebrate service to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with an abiding respect for one another.
If ever there was a year when we needed a civil moment, this was it. In the aftermath of the polarizing presidential election, it would have been a welcome respite to come together with fellow Pennsylvanians to celebrate all that we have in common, and not be distracted by our differences. That is what has made ‘PA Society’ so special for so many. Sadly, ‘coming together’ is just not possible in the age of COVID-19. So, for the first time in our history, The Pennsylvania Society has canceled its annual dinner in New York, which would have been held this Saturday. I will miss seeing all of my friends and colleagues from across the Commonwealth — and beyond.
If you’re wondering why this group of Pennsylvanians has been hitting the road to Manhattan all these years, you can thank James Barr Ferree, an historian and native Pennsylvanian living in New York City, who invited 55 fellow Pennsylvanians also living in New York to join him for dinner at The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1899. While enjoying a meal together, they decided to form a group known initially as “The Pennsylvania Society of New York.” Their goal was to establish a society “uniting all Pennsylvanians at home and away from home in bonds of friendship and devotion to their native or adopted state” and would meet for dinner every year, same time, same place.
The following year, a young British journalist and Member of Parliament dropped in and regaled the diners with stories about his adventures in the Boer War. The young man’s name was Winston Churchill. Thus began a tradition of having a guest speaker of interest at the dinner.
In the years that followed, the Society has honored those who have given back to the Commonwealth including Andrew Mellon, Henry Ford, Mamie and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Louise and Andrew Carnegie, Guion Bluford, Elsie Hillman, Andrew Wyeth, Arnold Palmer, M. Night Shyamalan, Vice President Joe Biden and the beloved Fred Rogers to name only a few.
Each year, the Gold Medal recipient selects a Pennsylvania charity of his or her choice, which receives a donation from the Society. All told, millions of dollars have benefitted these worthy organizations. And to honor scholarship, students compete annually for the Benjamin Franklin Scholar Award, a writing competition open to Pennsylvania high school juniors.
As the years passed, the dinner has become the hallmark event of The Pennsylvania Society year. Pennsylvania politicians and business leaders have used “PA Society Weekend” to host a number of events and forums, always with a civil tone and approach. With a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, we are hopeful we can restart the dinner next year.
This year our leadership team decided rather than selecting a Gold Medal honoree, we instead wanted to salute the extraordinary efforts of Pennsylvania’s frontline workers from across the Commonwealth who continue to work tirelessly in difficult conditions to keep their fellow Pennsylvanians safe. Like factory workers in Delaware County who volunteered to live inside their plant for 28 straight days, making materials needed for N95 masks. Or the Lehigh Valley distillery that used their alcohol-making skills to produce much-needed hand sanitizer for local non-profits. Using the hashtag #pacovidheroes, these stories live on our new Instagram page, and I invite all Pennsylvanians to learn more about these remarkable men and women and to share their own stories of everyday heroism.
In the more than 120 years that have passed since its first gathering, the Society has sponsored scores of historical and social functions, bringing together its members and friends to remind them of Pennsylvania’s vital and long-standing leadership in the economic and industrial life of the nation. And today, despite the challenges that will keep us from gathering together, The Pennsylvania Society remains dedicated to continuing and renewing that leadership, with friendship and with civility toward our fellow Pennsylvanians.
Edward J. Sheehan, Jr. is President of The Pennsylvania Society and serves as the President and CEO of Pennsylvania headquartered Concurrent Technologies Corporation. Learn more at www.PASociety.com.