By Tony May
Strictly speaking, a habit applies to individual repetitive behaviors while traditions involve groups of people or an entire community. Neither are easy to change without good cause.
The history of the Pennsylvania Society is one of a habit among a handful of men begun in 1899 and became a tradition honored by five generations of Pennsylvania’s movers and shakers. At the core of that tradition was the idea hatched by James Barr Ferree that emigrant Pennsylvanians living in New York City should gather once a year at the Waldorf Astoria (then located on the site of what is now the Empire State Building) to honor their roots. By 1903 the annual dinner hosted by the Pennsylvania Society of New York was also hosting “country cousins” from Penn’s Woods and the institution was incorporated as, simply, The Pennsylvania Society.
Like all traditions, The Pennsylvania Society changed slowly, if at all. After a few decades, women were allowed to attend the formerly all-male affair. Before, it was assumed that the womenfolk who joined their husbands in New York for the gala would be kept busy shopping and enjoying the sights of the Big City. With the advent of the civil rights movement, minorities were welcomed as members of the Society. And, eventually, the same courtesies were extended to confessed Democrats
Through it all, the annual gala and the society itself, with its charitable works, has grown in stature and in influence. What started originally as an opportunity for friends by and of Pennsylvania to visit New York and honor their state became an opportunity to go to “be seen” as much as to see. It became a place to bounce ideas off people who identified themselves as important to Pennsylvania’s future. . .a place for two or three alpha dogs to get together to see what kind of markers they could leave on fire hydrants.
In recent years, though (and particularly this year) the erstwhile Pennsylvania Society of New York has been dragged into the debate over the politics of austerity. Should public servants be allowed to have that much fun whiles taxes seem so high? Should public servants indulge in freebies ranging from shrimp and oysters and lollipop lamb chops to Broadway show tickets to lodging in five star hotels? And the question is being asked publicly, “Why do they meet in New York City? Isn’t Pennsylvania good enough for them?”
It’s beginning to sound like it’s time for another evolutionary change in this century old tradition. It’s time to bring the Pennsylvania Society winter gala home to the Keystone State. The society’s offices have been housed in Montgomery County for years. The annual spring luncheon already is held at a different location every year in Pennsylvania. Former Gov. Ed Rendell is right: if we truly think we are the Keystone State, we ought to be showcasing Pennsylvania.
If Philadelphia can host the Democratic National Convention: if Pittsburgh can host the G-20, then certainly either could host the Pennsylvania Society. Both now have gourmet restaurants to rival or surpass New York City. There are plenty of first class hotel rooms and iconic scenery. Surpassing New York City, Philadelphia has become the first U.S. metropolis to be granted World Heritage City status.
Let’s face it: if we really think that Pennsylvania should be a top tourism destination for others, it should be good enough for its own people.