OSWEGO TOWN, NY – Throughout the ceremony, the curtains hiding the guest of honor continued to billow, partially revealing the larger-than-life figure. It was as if Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was telling the speakers who paraded to the podium Saturday morning in front of the Oswego Town Hall to hurry up and introduce her.
After about a decade of work by dozens of volunteers, the dedication ceremony for Oswego Town’s most famous citizen was under way.
Dr. Walker served as a physician during the Civil War. And, she is the only woman ever awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her heroic services.
“I don’t like to take credit for this,” Theresa Cooper, Oswego Town Clerk, demurred. “Everyone was a part of this. The community deserves the credit; just everyone.”
“I’m just so excited. I’ve waited so long for this,” Cooper continued, her voice cracking with emotion.
George DeMass, Oswego Town Historian, served as MC for the ceremony.
“We are remembering one of our citizens,” he told the hundreds of people crowded into the town hall’s parking lot and beyond. Some of them were dressed in 1860’s attire. “And, I think I heard her say this morning, ‘George, it is about time!’”
“It all began at a fire department banquet in 2003. We were talking about a statue for Dr. Walker. Legislator Doug Malone said, ‘I will cut my ponytail if you can raise $1,000 for that statue.’ He handed me $100 and we began the Dr. Mary Walker statue project,” Cooper recalls.
They raised $1,000 in no time – but it took Doug a couple years to get the courage to cut that ponytail, she continued.
“Little did we know the amount of money we needed for a bronze statue. But this was a challenge that we embraced. It was slow going for a while after that first $1,000. But when the new town hall was built, we now had a perfect spot for the statue.”
A variety of fundraisers were undertaken and the community gave generously.
“Small and large businesses, school children and people near and far also helped,” Cooper said.
When an anonymous donor presented her with a check for $16,000, Cooper said, “I knew this was going to happen.”
The giving didn’t stop after a town resident’s gift put the fund drive over the top.
“Just this past week, a gentleman came to our town to look at the statue. He said he was happy to share the same last name of Dr. Walker. He asked if we were still taking donations. I said, ‘Yes, she is going to need to be polished!’ He opened up his wallet and gave a donation. Even today, one of our town residents handed me an envelope and said, ‘I think I forgot. Here is my donation.’”
A brass quintet from the 10th Mountain Division US Army Band performed patriotic selections for the huge crowd. The Oswego High School Brass Ensemble and the Minetto School Chorus also performed.
Students at Minetto Elementary helped raise more than $1,000 for the project.
A representative from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office relayed the governor’s best wishes and congratulations.
As an amateur historian, the governor is fond of history – especially the history of this region. “We are so fortunate to live in an area that is so historically rich and culturally significant,” the governor wrote. “This larger-than-life statue depicts Dr. Walker at a podium with her medical bag at her side … This monument will go a long way toward translating and illustrating the past for those living and learning now as well as future generations.”
Saturday was a day to honor women, strong women who have been able to succeed thanks to the efforts of Dr. Walker, noted Victoria Mullen, town supervisor.
Mullen, the first woman Oswego Town supervisor, introduced Senator Patty Ritchie, the first woman senator for this district.
“It’s truly amazing that the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor is from the Town of Oswego,” the senator exclaimed.
She presented the town with a state senate proclamation declaring May 12 as Dr. Mary E. Walker Day.
Ritchie was followed by Congresswoman AnnMarie Buerkle, the first congresswoman for the district.
“This is the essence of America. This is what our country stands for, good people who love their country and to honor those who love their country,” she said.
A representative from U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office conveyed her congratulations to the town, pointing out it was “a great feat not only for Oswego County but the state of New York.”
Assemblyman Bob Oaks recounted a story about a young girl (inspired by Dr. Walker) who went to college instead of joining the family business in the 1920s. After college, she again shunned the family business to go to medical school.
“That’s what we’re honoring today; that spirit, it’s changed America and it’s hopefully what we’re looking for even more changes in the future and a greater country to live in,” he said.
“I am truly impressed by the number of people involved in this” said Oswego County Legislature Chairman Fred Beardsley.
He praised all those involved for ensuring that generations to come will be reminded of Dr. Walker’s sacrifices and what it means to them.
The chairman presented the town with a proclamation similar to the state’s.
Sharon BuMann, the sculptor who created the memorial to Dr. Walker, told of how her relationship with Dr. Walker actually started more than 20 years and was amazed to learn that she came from Oswego County. She said her father urged her to use her talents to share the stories of the people were a part of the county’s rich history.
She proposed a monument to Dr. Walker. “Interestingly, it didn’t go anywhere,” she added.
A few years later she was contacted by the Oswego Town Historical Society who was interested in doing a monument.
BuMann said her artwork captures how multi-faceted Dr. Walker was.
“There was nothing she couldn’t or wouldn’t do,” she said. “She was a hands-on person. There is a lot of symbolism involved in this monument.”
The statue shows her stepping forward. She is clutching her medal of honor, which she cherished. She was a great speaker, so she is at the podium. She was an author, so there is a pen on the podium.
“She truly was an amazing person and I feel somewhat akin to her since we spent so much time together,” BuMann noted.
Keynote speaker Dr. Sharon Harris touched on many parts of Dr. Walker’s life to show she was so much more than a woman who was, because she wore pants instead of a dress, arrested at least nine times “for impersonating a man.”
Walker, most notably remembered as the only woman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and being the first female U.S. Army surgeon (during the Civil War) was also a campaigner for the Suffrage Movement, rights for children and veterans, dress reform and social reform, Dr. Harris said.
Dr. Walker was a world traveler, but remained a life-long resident of Oswego Town. She grew up in a farmhouse on Bunker Hill Road and is buried in Rural Cemetery in the town.
Her father helped her attend medical college, an unimaginable opportunity for a young woman in the 1850s – it was unimaginable for most young men as well, Dr. Harris said.
“She graduated, with honors, from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. The first woman doctor had received an MD in 1849,” she said. “The most important trait to learn as a physician and as a human being was liberty of thought (Dr. Walker said in her graduation speech). That was the creed by which Dr. Walker lived her life.”
Women were only allowed to serve as nurses during the Civil War, so Dr. Walker volunteered her services at military hospitals in Washington DC. Her work there got her recognized by the male doctors and was recommended to be a battlefield doctor.
“She was there in the midst of battle for many, many months at a time,” Dr. Harris said. “She served not only as a physician but as a spy. She was captured and held as a prisoner of war for four months.”
The brutal conditions in the prison camp damaged her health leaving her with life-long lung and eye problems; she had to stop doing surgery but still practiced as a doctor.
One of the reasons Dr. Walker wore pants was for health reasons, Dr. Harris pointed out. Operations weren’t as sterile then as they are now and Dr. Walker didn’t want a long dress dragging on the ground during surgeries.
She also believed in multiple careers for women; “She saw no boundaries, no limitations,” she continued.
Dr. Walker also studied law right after the Civil War and she provided assistance to veterans and others.
She became so well-known that newspaper headlines at the time referred to her simply as Dr. Mary.
However, because of her views, she was often stoned and chased by mobs who opposed her choice of style. Women’s clothing of those days weighed around 35 pounds and over time, women’s shoulders and spines became damaged by the weight. And corsets, when worn over time, would push the ribs inward and compressed the lungs making it difficult for women to breath.
“I stand here proud of all the efforts of people from today’s gentleman … the school children, small and large businesses, the Oswego County Legislature, Oswego Town Historical Society members and the many, many other who made this day possible with their hard work and dedication and donations,” Cooper said at the conclusion of the ceremonies.
Three descendants of the Walker family made the journey to Oswego Town to take part in the dedication ceremony – Norma Candee Maffreo, Donald Worden and Nancy Thompson Ravas.
Maffreo, of Latham, told Oswego County Today that she was glad to see Dr. Walker recognized in the community she loved.
“It was a beautiful ceremony and you could not have picked a better day,” she said. “I couldn’t believe all the people that turned out. Dr. Mary would have appreciated this.”
”She led the way for many of the women leaders who are here today. And, most of them are wearing pants!” Cooper added. “She is an inspiration to all women, all girls – all people.”
And that is how today’s generation is going to recall her, Mullen pointed out.
“They’ll remember her as a leader who opened doors for those who have followed her and not as being scorned for her manner of dress or political or social views,” Mullen said.
“I have got to die before people know who I am and what I have done. It is a shame that people who lead reforms in this world are not appreciated until after they are dead; then the world pays its tributes by piling rocks over the grave of the reformer. I would be thankful if people would treat me decently now instead of erecting great piles of stone over me after I am dead. But, then, that’s human nature”
Dr. Mary E. Walker – 1897