Not Just for Columbus Anymore: Harriton’s Own Santa Maria

You may know Mr. Santa Maria as a well-dressed man who you see marching around the History hallway with a subtle air of authority. You may know him as the US Government teacher who coaches students on how to be knowledgeable and savvy citizens as well as how to do well on the AP Government Test. His Government class is known for not just being a course in which you can pick up knowledge on what gerrymandering is and how it would be constitutional for Obama to tweet his State of the Union address instead of making a speech, but also a place where you can pick up a few laughs.

You might also know Mr. Santa Maria as the man with the name that sounds like one of Christopher Columbus’s ships. Whichever way you know him, you are about to know him much better. Prepare to hear about everything from space travel to stovepipe hats to Richard Nixon.

Dan Olivieri: Everyone asks about favorite presidents, but who is your favorite vice-president and why was he so good at being vice-president?

Mr. Santa Maria: Some presidents only want their Vice President to have a heartbeat in case theirs stops. Other presidents rely on #2 for certain things, or perhaps too many things in the case of Dick Cheney.  So my favorite is someone who is useful to the president while he is president, but not so influential that he interferes or detracts from the program.

It may seem surprising, but I think Richard Nixon filled description as good or better than anyone else.  President Eisenhower did not like to fly on long trips and had seen enough of the world by 1953.  Nixon dove right into the statesman role and traveled all over, representing the United States very well.  Ike also detested the knife-fighting aspects of American politics and happily let Nixon mix it up on his behalf on the campaign trail and with Congress.  And, not insignificantly, when Ike suffered a serious heart attack, Nixon assumed the duties of acting president for a few months and did not burn the house down (or steal the silverware).

Unfortunately for Nixon, working for someone else proved to be a much better fit than being the boss.

DO: What is your favorite type of headwear in American History? Do you like the dapper top hats of the nineteen-century, the powdered wigs of the eighteenth century, the headdresses of Native Americans, or some other garment designed to occupy the noggin?

SM: I’m probably the last person to have an opinion on good fashion, but I’ll take a stab at this.  It’s hard not to like the stovepipe hat that Lincoln wore while president.  And I also haven’t seen it on anyone else’s head, it’s like it was Abe’s unique statement, “I’m the man, and I will wear this hat to add to my six foot five inch frame and make me visible from far away.”

DO: If you could make an amendment to the Constitution, what would it be and would it involve clowns?

SM: Hmmm…I would like to see an amendment that essentially overrides the Citizen United Supreme Court decision.  It would give Congress the authority to set strict limits on campaign contributions and detangle big money from the political process.  The Court has ruled that money = free speech, and that has seriously warped the process in favor of the rich at the expense of everyone else.  With regard to clowns, we should all stop pretending they not scary and weaponize them against our enemies.

DO: When I took your US Government and Politics class (one of the best classes in the school, by the way) we spent the last few weeks of the year filling our minds with all the details of Watergate. What do you find to be most important aspect of Watergate?

SM: There are really two really important things to remember about Watergate: 1) We can’t always rely on government to police itself, and in order to know what is going wrong we must keep and protect a free and investigative press; and 2) our Constitution is STRONG and capable of removing a president who abuses the powers he is given.

DO: Is there an underappreciated figure in American History who you think isn’t as well known as he or she should be? What makes he/she interesting and why do you think he/she has been overlooked?

SM: Yes, and he passed away two years ago without much fanfare considering the fact that history will regard him in the same league as Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Sir Edmund Hillary and Charles Lindbergh.  In July, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human being to walk on a celestial body other than the earth.  His moonwalk was indeed a “giant leap for mankind” and regarded as the greatest achievement of the 20th century, but in the years that followed our eyes gradually turned away from manned space exploration even though Hollywood cashes in on it constantly.  Armstrong was the quintessential American hero who did not covet or seek fame in his later years, and he also did not do anything shameful either.  He quietly lived out his life in Ohio and was largely unknown to anyone under forty when he died.
DO: When you are not teaching you spend a lot of time painting and working as the head of the Teacher’s Union. Are there any similarities between these two?

SM: I guess there are some if you can follow this train of thought:  A painter tries to capture an idea onto canvas and I try to do something similar in that I also try to capture ideas into the language that works in contracts.  But more than anything, really, painting helps me take my mind away from other things that are perhaps unhealthy to dwell upon – like union problems.

DO: Can you tell us more about painting? What do you enjoy most about it? What makes you choose your subject matters?

SM: This is a little embarrassing because I don’t consider myself a good enough painter to be asked this much about it.  I guess I enjoy it most when I take chances with color or light that pan out on the canvass.  It also takes a lot of concentration to paint, or do anything creative, and that releases the mind from other stressors.  I usually choose subjects (scenes) that get stuck in mind until I paint them.  Currently I’m working on a portrait of my mother – she passed away in 1993 shortly after I got hired at Harriton.

DO: What are your favorite parts of teaching? Are there any tricks to keeping a class in line or holding its attention?

SM: I haven’t left high school since 1980 except for a few years of college!  I must like the interaction with teenagers, I guess.  I deeply appreciate the fact that I get paid to talk to young adults and get them interested in history and politics.  The only trick to running a classroom is to respect the students, treat them like young adults who have something important to say, add some humor and be able to laugh at yourself, and the rest will just fall in line.

DO: What do you think is the best part of our government that people do not realize the value of?

SM: This will sound like a cliché, but it can’t be overstated – our right to vote! With it, anything is possible, and without it, nothing is.  About half the world’s adult population is not guaranteed this right by their government.  When you have no vote, your life is essentially being directed by someone else who is not accountable to you.  Let that sink in and you’ll begin to appreciate the fact that not only do we as Americans have the right to vote, but our democracy gives us more things to vote on than most of the others.  Anyone who doesn’t register to vote as soon as he/she turns 18 is handing the keys to their life to others who did.
DO: What are your favorite presidential pets?

SM: Back to presidents??  I don’t have a favorite, but Harry Truman said it best when he said, “If you want a friend in this world, get a dog.”