John B. Salamone, executive director of the National Italian American Foundation, was upbeat yesterday, having just returned from the annual observances at the statue of Christopher Columbus in front of Union Station.
"We had a good crowd," he reported. "There were bands playing, and nobody threw any blood at the statue this year."
Yesterday's holiday honoring Columbus provided a day off for hundreds of thousands of area workers. President Bush issued a proclamation. Diplomats, Italian Americans and others joined ceremonies remembering the sea captain from Genoa, whose 1492 voyage in search of a western passage to the East Indies brought him instead to the Caribbean islands, and the New World.
But Columbus Day does not inspire the region-wide closures typically generated by the nine other federal holidays. Schoolchildren in Alexandria, Prince George's County and most other jurisdictions went to class, and local governments were open in Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Stafford counties.
It seems, even according to Salamone, that Columbus Day can't get any respect.
"We're the Rodney Dangerfield of federal holidays," he said, referring to the comedian who died last week. "But next to the Fourth of July, there's no national holiday that is older in America than Columbus Day."
In the 512 years since his voyage, Columbus has been celebrated as one of the greatest mariners in history and reviled as a ruthless imperialist who brought suffering to native peoples.
The statue of Columbus, erected at Union Station in 1912, has drawn Columbus Day protests in recent years, most notably in 1991 and again in 2002, when demonstrators expressing sympathy for Native Americans poured red paint, symbolizing blood, over the figure.
"We're talking 1492!" Salamone said. "He may be politically incorrect in 2004, but he certainly was revered in our history. He brought two worlds together. There's a reason why they named the nation's capital after him."
Officials in area jurisdictions and school systems that remained open yesterday said they meant no disrespect to Columbus or the country's 20 million Italian Americans. They just had other ideas about how to use the day.
"We have a lot of residents who commute north and can't get to the government center during normal business hours," said Cathy Riddle, a spokeswoman for Stafford County. "We decided to stay open this day so people, mostly federal workers, could come in for any county services and not have to take a day off from work. . . . It was an employee's idea."
Riddle said this is the first year county offices have stayed open on Columbus Day.
"There's probably a mixed reaction because county employees are used to having it off," she said. "We tried to pick a holiday that would be the least disruptive to the employees."
In Anne Arundel County, spokeswoman Jody Couser said Columbus Day is a "floater holiday." "Employees can take any other day throughout the year," she said. "This offers more flexibility. . . . We haven't had any complaints."
That wasn't the case in Alexandria two years ago when the school system held classes on Memorial Day to make up for school closures during a hard winter.
"We got pounded by the veterans," said school spokeswoman Barbara Hunter.
This school year, when Alexandria officials decided to give the students Inauguration Day off, Columbus Day was chosen as a day for classes. "We haven't had one call on this," Hunter said.
David Weaver, a spokesman for the Montgomery County government, said local officials decided several years ago to "follow the private sector" and give employees the option of taking off Columbus Day or another day of their choosing.
"There's no net loss in days off for employees, but this way the county government is open more days than it used to be," he said.
Salamone said his organization concentrates on the great contributions of Italian Americans, not on whether every jurisdiction in America is celebrating properly.
"Columbus is one of only a handful of official federal holidays honoring individuals," he said. "We're just delighted to be in that group."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.