You never have any trouble finding a news angle on Halls of Fame because a new one is formed almost every week.
If not that, an already existing one is looking for a place to light. The new Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, for instance, finally decided yesterday it would take up residence in Cleveland. The nation had waited on tenterhooks.
It wouldn't be America without our Halls of Fame.
Some Halls of Fame don't even have a Hall. You will find the Poultry Hall of Fame on the top floor of the stark, monolithic National Agriculture Library in Beltsville.
It is nothing but a bunch of portraits and placards (quite impressive, withal) hung among the card catalogues. There are pictures of great turkey growers and famous chicken entrepreneurs and scientists who prolonged the lives of feathered creatures. (No one knows for sure how long a chicken lives. So few of them get to die of old age.) And the Chicken of Tomorrow contest. Don't forget that.
Now and then a visitor shows disappointment that it is really a Poultry Growers' Hall of Fame and does not honor the chickens themselves. But most people understand. This is what Halls of Fame are all about. American Halls of Fame, I should say, because they are all but unknown in the rest of the world.
And, just as there are a lot of Americans, there are a lot of Halls of Fame. I mean a lot. The Baseball Hall of Fame is just a grain of sand on the beach. The Encyclopedia of Associations alone lists 16 Hall of Fame Associations and two Hall of Shame Associations.
And those are just the ones big enough to require some sort of federal system. Once you start counting the local ones, you might as well plan on missing lunch, because it will take you all day even to think about them.
Just off the top of my head I can give you the Pickle Packers Hall of Fame, the Animal Actors, Texas Rangers and Exotic Dancers Halls of Fame. The Dog Mushers, Playboy Music, Songwriters, Country Music, Muskegon (Mich.) Chronicle Sports and Count Dracula Society Horror Halls of Fame -- and Halls of Fame for black filmmakers, lacrosse players, cowboys and Lord knows what all. Some guy in Arizona is compiling a directory, and so far it has run to four volumes. There is no end of them.
Why? Why indeed. Ask why this proliferation in America when Britain is content with its Order of the British Empire and France with its Le'gion d'honneur ("Men are led by baubles," Napoleon muttered when he established it), and you get a lot of answers, and most of them say the same thing.
"Americans have a penchant for self-congratulation," says Vance Packard, author of "The Hidden Persuaders," "The Status Seekers" and "A Nation of Strangers." It is one of the ways we amuse ourselves, apparently.
The ubiquitous sociologist Amitai Etzioni says it all has to do with the breakdown of our society and our "desperate efforts to find some fixed points of reference." Columnist Sydney Harris says it is about role models. "Our heroes and heroines are not people who have done big things, but people who have Made It Big," he says, neatly finding the phrase for what has happened to the American dream.
I don't know. I don't think any of those prescriptions even begins to cover the situation. For instance, where would you put the Alabama Turkey Hunters Hall of Fame?
The Turkey Hunters have their own museum, too, which got into the newspapers recently when the state legislature almost required it to build an annex for armadillos.
Maybe a museum is a fixed point of reference, but I think armadillos are a pretty shaky concept at best.
In San Antonio, the Texas Pet Hall of Fame has inducted a poodle named Leo for saving a boy's life by jumping in front of a rattler poised to strike. Well, I will concede that maybe Leo is a fine role model, but I don't exactly see where he has Made It Big. The hall was founded two years ago "to honor animals who, through unselfish and courageous accomplishments, exemplify the human-to-animal bond."
There is, as you might expect, an ur-Hall of Fame, The Hall of Fame for Great Americans, established in 1901 when a colonnade was dedicated at the Bronx Community College campus of New York University. When we last looked there were 103 honorees -- authors, educators, preachers, humanitarians, scientists, engineers, physicians, inventors, one explorer (Daniel Boone), members of the military, lawyers and judges, statesmen, businessmen and artists, each of whom has a bronze bust in the curving open-air colonnade.
Most of the people are immune from mundane controversy, scandal and talk shows, since a nominee must be 25 years in the grave. The authors seem to stop with Hawthorne, Longfellow and Whitman, the generals with the Civil War and the statesmen with Franklin D. Roosevelt. But elections are held every three years, so it is possible that someday we will honor, say, inventors who came after the Wright brothers or George Westinghouse.
There is, you might know, a National Inventors Hall of Fame. Here we have the likes of Theodore Maiman, inventor of ruby laser systems, and Wallace Carothers, who is responsible for Diamine-Dicarboxylic Acid Salts and the Process of Preparing Same and Synthetic Fiber, along with old standbys such as Edison, Pasteur, Goddard, Kettering and Whitney.
And because there are only 10 women in The Hall of Fame (and none in the inventors' hall), they too have their own pantheon, in Seneca Falls, N.Y., "the cradle of women's rights."
Since 1968 the National Women's Hall of Fame has honored 38 women, from Mary Cassatt to Amelia Earhart, from Babe Didrikson Zaharias to Bessie Smith, from Margaret Sanger to Sojourner Truth.
And sports! Sports adores Halls of Fame. There is an entire Association of Sports Museums and Halls of Fame, covering everything from aquatics to wrestling, and also the Green Bay Packers, Little League, Polish-American and Trotting Horse halls and 52 others. The Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y., is unlisted here, though it is probably the only one of them all whose membership choices actually make some people furious.
And then there is the Cooperative Hall of Fame for "those distinguished individuals whose contributions to cooperative business have been genuinely heroic," not an easy thing to accomplish.
So what's so mysterious about a Hall of Fame? I don't need a sociologist for this. I understand it perfectly. There you are, a bright young pioneer, ready to make over the world. You leave your home town, where you could just as well have stayed for life to be known as "the Wacker boy, you know, the Community Hardware Wackers, the one who sells insurance . . . yeah, the tall one, old Bulmer's grandson who lives in that big old house on Marvin Street."
But you moved to another state and put your mark on somebody else's home town, and now you are established in an alien landscape, a solitary name in a phone book that contains no friendly fat column of Wackers, a stranger among strangers, likely to live and die as unremarked as the daisies by the roadside. So you get elected to a Hall of Fame. See your name in bronze. Show your children. Put a plaque in your office.
Warhol was wrong about everyone being famous for 15 minutes. Get enough Halls of Fame, and we'll all be immortal.