When Denise Doring VanBuren speaks about how a restored Tower of Victory at Washington’s Headquarters could bring the same kind of tourism to the Newburgh area that the Walkway over the Hudson has brought to Poughkeepsie, it’s easy to get caught up in her vision. “When the Centennial of the American Revolution came around, Congress decided to erect something to celebrate a century of peace,” she explains. “And did they put it in Yorktown? Do they put it in Saratoga? No; this amazing building, with a beautiful statue of Washington in the center, was built in Newburgh.
“But its rooftop viewing platform blew off in a bad hurricane in the 1950s, and now funds are being raised to get that put back in place. When you go up there and see that magnificent view, when you look at the Hudson Highlands, then north toward the Beacon Bridge…it is breathtaking. And with all the activity that occurs on the Newburgh waterfront, if we could have a little Revolutionary Trail, ‘walking in the footsteps of history’ to this fabulous viewing platform that’s been reopened for the first time in a half-century? I think it could be a great boon for Newburgh, and a great draw.”
Our conversation is taking place because Denise Doring VanBuren is the 2016 recipient of the Martha Washington Woman of History Award bestowed annually by Washington’s Headquarters. The presentation will occur at the historic site on Sunday, March 13 at 3 p.m. The public is welcome to attend.
Professionally speaking, VanBuren is the vice president of public relations for the Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corporation in Poughkeepsie. She has an undergrad degree in Journalism and a Master’s degree in Business Administration. And her volunteer work helping to raise funds for the Tower of Victory restoration is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of her efforts to keep local history alive: VanBuren is on the Board of Directors at Dutchess Community College, the Samuel F. B. Morse Locust Grove Historic Site and the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College and is just about to end her term as president of the Dutchess County Historical Society. She is a five-term past president of the Beacon Historical Society and co-author of Historic Beacon and Beacon Revisited (Arcadia Publishing).
VanBuren’s co-author, Robert J. (Bob) Murphy, current City of Beacon historian and president of the Beacon Historical Society, is the person who nominated her for the Martha Washington Woman of History Award. Given each year to a woman who has distinguished herself in the field of Hudson Valley history, the award was established to acknowledge Martha Washington’s contributions to American history.
All throughout the eight-and-a-half years of the American Revolution, Martha left her comfortable home in Virginia to travel at great risk to her own personal safety – as the wife of the commanding general of the Continental Army, she was a target for capture by the British – in order to join her husband in the various locations out of which he was headquartered. Once established in these places, she acted as hostess to an endless stream of military and civilian visitors who came to see General George Washington. A literate woman, Martha even helped aides with paperwork, copying letters and expense accounts. After one particularly harsh and dispiriting winter, she helped organize a campaign to enlist the support of America’s women to provide direct aid to suffering soldiers. And through it all, she was said to exhibit grace under pressure.
The recipient of the annual Martha Washington Woman of History Award must be a woman who has demonstrated similar character while contributing to the promotion and preservation of history in the Hudson Valley. The award originated more than a decade ago with a former interpretive programs assistant at Washington’s Headquarters, Kathleen Mitchell, whose interest in Martha Washington’s contributions to American history was piqued by working at our country’s first publicly owned state historic site. The initial award was given in 2003 to author and historian Janet Dempsey. Other past recipients include Carol Ash, former commissioner of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; Barbara Bedell, Times-Herald Record columnist; and Mary McTamaney, City of Newburgh historian.
VanBuren, whose family roots in the Hudson River Valley go back to when it was New Netherland, has been a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) since 1988 and is currently the DAR’s national organizing secretary general, an elected volunteer position with a staff of six full-time employees in Washington, DC. VanBuren has also been the (volunteer) editor-in-chief of the DAR’s award-winning national bimonthly magazine American Spirit and an accompanying newsletter, Daughters, since 2004.
“A lot of people think the DAR is an elitist organization,” she says, “but as much as we are a lineal society, and you need to document your heritage back to somebody who fought on the American side in the Revolution, what has made the DAR so successful since our founding in 1890 is that we have always been a service organization.” VanBuren’s local chapter, Melzingah (the names keep alive Native American traditions), saved the oldest building in Dutchess County from being demolished in 1954; the 1709 Madame Brett Homestead is now operated as a house museum in Beacon. Nationally, the organization provides scholarships and constitutes the largest group of volunteers at Veterans’ Administration medical centers.
Being a part of the DAR “is the only opportunity I have as an American, as a citizen, to express my love of country,” VanBuren says. “In your normal everyday life, you just don’t have that opportunity. To be able to support people at Landstuhl Medical Center, which is the hospital in Germany where our wounded from Afghanistan and Iraq are brought first – and they often arrive with no clothing or any possessions, so we literally provide the underwear that they are given, and the phone cards to call home. As a citizen, it’s an amazing opportunity to step forward and serve your country.”
When asked how she finds time to carry out all of these volunteer efforts, along with maintaining family life and her full-time position at Central Hudson, VanBuren says that it helps that she doesn’t watch television. “And as a cancer survivor since 1989, I literally made a commitment to myself that I would make the most of every minute. Life is so darn short.”
Woman of History Award ceremony, Saturday, March 13, 3 p.m., free, Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site, 84 Liberty Street, Newburgh; (845) 562-1195, www.nysparks.com/historic-sites/17/details.aspx.