Garden City resident and Garden City Life columnist Robert McMillan has donated a significant portion of his own personal memorabilia related to the Panama Canal and its history to Adelphi University in Garden City. The exhibit, entitled, The End of an Era: The Transfer of the Panama Canal is up in the Swirbul Library and will remain there until Jan. 21. An opening reception was held on Dec. 7 to thank McMillan for his contributions to the university.
The collection, which is actually significantly larger in total than the exhibit itself, which could only accommodate select items from Adelphi's growing Panama Collection, thanks to continuous donations of materials by McMillan, is located in the front entryway of the library. The exhibit attempts to illustrate the history of the Panama Canal from its construction to the present day. There are books, documents, letters, photographs, maps, and a large diorama.
McMillan has recently been the guest speaker at a Chamber of Commerce event and a Community Church forum, among other local speaking engagements, discussing his role in the history of the canal and what he feels the future may bring for the area. In his weekly column, An Opinion by Robert R. McMillan, which appears on the editorial pages of all 18 Anton Newspapers he often discusses the treaty-mandated transfer of the Panama Canal to Panama from the United States to take place on Dec. 31 of this year. McMillan announced at the reception that he will be ringing in the new millennium at the Panama Canal with his wife as the Canal is transferred to Panama.
McMillan has written such things on the subject in his column as, "As the end of this year gets closer, more people ask me questions about what will happen to the Panama Canal when it is transferred to Panama. While that is a significant question for American shipping interests, there are several other issues which can be of equal or greater importance to the United States."
He cites the following example, "As the military leaves, Panama has to come to grips with the physical properties being turned over. The record to date has not been good. Many of the structures have become jungle vine infested ruins. Efforts to bring new businesses in to take over the buildings has not been as successful as the Panamanians had hoped. And the involvement of the Chinese in taking over decaying ports at each end of the canal have not ever been on the Clinton administration's radar scope. They have been asleep."
McMillan has also argued, "As for canal operations after Dec. 31, it appears that an old friend of mine from Panama, J.J. Vallarino, may become chairman of Panama's Canal Authority. If that is the case, the canal will start the new millennium on a positive note. J.J. is an effective and honest businessman who would provide no nonsense leadership to the Panamanian stewardship of the canal." Although he acknowledges the operation will face challenges from factors like "Colombian guerrillas seeking sanctuary in Panama" and "the ultra nationalist PRD party, the political home of former dictator Manuel Noriega."
The partner in the law firm McMillan, Rather, Bennett and Rigano, P.C. was once the chairman of the Panama Canal Commission's Board of Directors. The Commission was established by the Panama Canal Act of 1979 and replaced the Panama Canal Company and the Canal Zone Government. McMillan was first named to the commission in 1989 by then President George Bush and was elected chairman in 1993. He presided over the board of directors until October of 1994.
His position on the Commission followed an unsuccessful run in 1988 for the United States Senate. McMillan joked during his speech at the opening that once the election was over he was no longer known as the "little known lawyer," but the lawyer who ran against Pat Moynihan. He also joked that when asked what his qualifications were initially for serving on the Commission he cited his senate race, whether or not it was successful.
He was employed by Avon Products Inc. for 16 years, serving as a corporate officer for 10 of those years. He is founder and chairman of the Long Island Housing Partnership, Inc. He currently hosts WLIW-21's program Face-Off.
Not only were there speeches by university officials and McMillan, but local Teddy Roosevelt impersonator James Foote appeared from out of the book stacks in the library to deliver a speech once given by Teddy Roosevelt regarding the Panama Canal. The Roosevelt impersonator interrupted the speech occasionally to interject some Roosevelt history and encourage guests at the reception to explore Roosevelt's role in the Canal and American history at the Sagamore Hill Museum on the north shore. Foote also mingled after the speeches for the duration of the party as Roosevelt.
The evening was also a curiosity to students working in the library, as they searched for books and caught glimpses of strangers drinking wine and dining on bruschetta to the tunes of a harpist right among the reference materials. Merchant Marines studying at the Academy here on Long Island were present, as they are members of a special group of Merchant Marines, all from Panama. They study here and pay their tuition to the Academy, but are citizens of Panama. Each of those present had McMillan sign special cards to relatives back home and autograph cards for themselves.
Garden City Mayor Hal Hecken as well as former Chamber of Commerce President Maureen Clancy were both present at the event, as was Anton Community Newspapers publisher Karl Anton. The reception was by invitation only, but the exhibit is open to the public. Many expressed their desire to see the entire collection on display together someday, but as was indicated by the university, McMillan's collection is so extensive that finding a location on campus to display all of the materials would be difficult. Perhaps some day the university will have a venue for such displays, but in the meantime, residents are encouraged to visit the personal collection, now part of Adelphi University, in the Swirbul Library on the Garden City campus.