By Mike Ervin
Marvin Wolfe likes to pass out a business card identifying him as the executive director of the Chester A. Arthur Clubs of America. In the upper left corner of the card is a sketch of Arthur, muttonchops and all. Chester Alan Arthur, by the way, was the 21st president of the United States. Elected vice president under James Garfield, he ascended to the presidency after Garfield's assassination in 1881, not long after the inauguration. Upon finishing his term, Arthur rode off into deepest obscurity.
The only thing is, there are no Chester A. Arthur Clubs of America. Wolfe just made them up one day when he was looking at a building in a small town downstate. "I'm always looking up. I'm always looking for dates or anything special about a building. And there was a sign in the window that said, 'Harry S. Truman Clubs of America.' So I thought, 'Hey, I'll just do that.'"
So Wolfe is the only member. At 72 he says being executive director of a nonexistent league of clubs is the perfect job for a retired guy like him because it's not much work and it's a lot of fun. One of the main perks is that it provides a good excuse to take road trips. Wolfe has been to almost every town in America named Chester, Arthur, or Chesterville.
The post also entails maintaining the official shrine of the Chester A. Arthur Clubs of America in the den of Wolfe's Downers Grove home. That's not much work, either. The shrine is, fittingly, as sparse as the legacy of Arthur himself. It consists of a framed portrait of Arthur on the wall, one Chester Arthur ashtray, and one Chester Arthur refrigerator magnet. In the portrait, Arthur resembles a stern headmaster with his 19th-century facial hair and his stodgy three-piece suit. He looks like the kind of guy who would be a tyrant about table manners. The official Arthur archive in Wolfe's den is composed of a row of books that have something to do with Chester Arthur and some notebooks full of miscellaneous Arthur memorabilia.
That's about as elaborate as Wolfe intends the shrine to get. He wouldn't want to draw too much attention to the Chester A. Arthur Clubs of America because then--God forbid--someone might want to join. "That would mean work!" Wolfe gasps. Before you knew it there would be membership rolls to keep and meetings to plan and agendas to develop. That would ruin everything.
"This is just fun," Wolfe says. He likes to watch the questions form on people's faces when he hands them his card. He was disappointed when the guy at the printing shop who took the order for business cards never so much as twitched an eyebrow. Wolfe also enjoys engaging in a never-ending Arthur scavenger hunt with certain friends. The archive notebooks are full of things people send him: Arthur on a Liberian postage stamp. Arthur on the back of a sugar packet. The obituary of a guy from Nashville, Tennessee, named Chester Arthur. A National Enquirer article about a 112-year-old woman who tackled a home invader and stabbed him to death. "It says she was born during Arthur's administration," Wolfe explains. There's also an article in which Gerald Ford named his favorite presidents as Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Arthur. If Ford had been an influential member of Congress when Mount Rushmore was proposed, Arthur might well have been on it instead of Washington or Lincoln.
In one of the notebooks is a 25-cent admission ticket for the birthplace of Chester Arthur in Fairfield, Vermont. Ticket number 00869 from August 1972. That's where it all began. Wolfe was on vacation with his daughter. "We were on a back road, which I like to do, kind of taking a shortcut through Vermont. And we saw a wooden sign that said, 'birthplace of Chester A. Arthur.' So I said why not go see it? It was so enticing. All I knew was he was president and he had whiskers.
"Then I came back to work and we're sitting around with coffee one morning. There were about eight or nine of us, maybe ten. And they said, 'Where did you go for vacation, Wolfe?' And I said, 'Oh, I went to Chester Arthur's birthplace.' They said, 'Who's Chester Arthur?' I think one guy guessed he was a vice president. These were reasonably educated people, like me, and not one of them knew he was a president. 'Who's Chester A. Arthur?' That's what people say when I give them that card, more often than not. I wonder what they teach people."
So Wolfe decided to make a hobby out of celebrating Arthur's anonymity. It wasn't until 1993, long after he began the fictitious clubs, that Wolfe learned there actually is something called the Chester A. Arthur Society. But nearly all of the 100 or so members live in Australia, where the society originated. It seems the Australian Arthur groupies hold an annual dinner to pay tongue-in-cheek homage to their hero. The main event of the evening is a knock-down-drag-out American presidential trivia contest. Participants, if they expect to win, have to know who was on just about every major-party presidential ticket, their shoe sizes, and their mothers' maiden names.
The ultimate goal of the Australian society is to someday be invited to the White House for an official Arthur tribute. That's why Wolfe was hoping Lamar Alexander would win the 1996 presidential election. Alexander wrote a book called Six Months Off: An American Family's Australian Adventure, in which he writes about meeting Arthur Society members. Wolfe says, "I was hoping he would get elected so maybe we could have the first international in the White House. You see how strong I am in my political convictions? I did it so I could have a party in the White House."
When the glorious day comes that Arthur finally gets his due, Wolfe says there'll be plenty of accomplishments to enumerate. Arthur was the first person to officially cross the Brooklyn bridge. He presided over the dedication of the Washington monument.
He also signed into law the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which created the present system for hiring government employees. One of the hottest political issues during his presidency was whether or not to abolish the spoils system. It operated like the Daley machine: If you were a good, loyal party member, you got a good job. No one made any secret of it. Arthur was steeped in that system, having been a New York customs official who controlled several plum jobs. When he signed the Pendleton Act, which parceled out jobs based on merit rather than party affiliation, a lot of his old cronies felt stabbed in the back. Wolfe agrees with historians who say it was a courageous move that probably cost Arthur the Republican nomination in 1884.
On the other hand, Arthur also signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens and prevented more Chinese from immigrating to the U.S. In one of Wolfe's notebooks a San Francisco Chronicle article refers to this law as a "monument to xenophobia."
Wolfe says, with somewhat of a huff, "They don't talk about the good things he did. Sure he did bad things. But he was a moral character, true to his wife, and a few other things we don't have too much of anymore."
The executive director of the Chester A. Arthur Clubs of America takes care to pay his own respects to the man. Every year on October 6, the day after Arthur was born in 1830, Wolfe sends out his annual Happy Belated Chester A. Arthur birthday cards. The front cover reads "Sorry I'm late--but so is he." And inside is a picture of the "late" Chester A. Arthur.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Marvin Wolfe photo by Lloyd DeGrane.