Mt. Pleasant's O'Rourke crafts Inauguration Day gifts
It's a job Peter O'Rourke insists he performs completely free of political prejudice.
It is also one he said he strives to complete with the utmost artistic passion.
For the sixth consecutive inauguration, Lenox Corp. called on O'Rourke to create what are considered the official inaugural gifts from the American people given to the president and vice president of the United States.
“It's a privilege to get to do it,” said O'Rourke, 59, a borough resident since 1981 when he relocated from Ireland with his wife, Bernadette, and daughters Sharon and Roberta, to work locally for Lenox as a deep glass cutter.
On Monday, Obama and Biden were presented with engraved crystal vases crafted by O'Rourke, proprietor of O'Rourke Cut Glass & Gifts located at the Mt. Pleasant Glass Center, the site of the former Lenox factory, along state Route 31 near the borough.
The commander-in-chief and his top aide were bestowed the custom-made items at the Inaugural Luncheon held at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. following the 57th Presidential Inauguration held before hundreds of thousands of spectators at the National Mall.
“Lenox is honored to have been selected as the designer and manufacturer of choice for the past 24 years to produce the inaugural commemorative gift for the president and vice president of the United States of America,” said Lester Gribetz, president of Lenox Corp.
While completing such high-profile assignments has increased O'Rourke's notoriety on a national level over the years, he is quick to point out that the service he provides is not influenced by any private political agenda.
“The personal thing for me is that the whole thing can turn into politics, rather than it being about the piece of glass,” O'Rourke said. “No matter which side you did it for, people think that you're leaning in that direction, and I don't care. I would have done the same for (2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt) Romney.”
O'Rourke said he got his start in the profession of producing commemorative pieces for those elected to the nation's highest office as a Lenox employee in 1984.
It was then that he was assigned to create a jar for storing jelly beans which, in early 1985, was presented to President Ronald Reagan on the day of the ceremony marking the start of his second term.
“We'd been doing a lot of bowls for Tip O'Neill, the speaker of the house at the time, and he was taking them back to Ireland,” O'Rourke said. “We knew it was a great opportunity for the company; it was a good stepping stone to really promote our deep-cut glass and compete with Waterford (Crystal).”
After that, O'Rourke helped to create the gifts presented to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore following Clinton's inauguration for his first term in office in early 1993.
Since then, he has served as the sole creator of the gifts given to Clinton and Gore to help kick off Clinton's second term in early 1997, to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney following Bush's inauguration ceremonies in 2001 and 2005, and to Obama and Biden in 2009.
The vases prepared for this year's inauguration are the result of approximately five months of work between O'Rourke and Timothy Carder, Lenox Corp. vice president of design.
Earlier this month, O'Rourke hand-delivered the vases to commemorate Obama and Biden to Carder at the Lenox Corp. headquarters in Bristol, Bucks County.
“(Peter) has exceptional talent,” said Carder, who has designed each inaugural gift that Peter has produced, along with an additional set of inaugural gifts presented by Lenox Corp. in early 1989 to President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle.
On Friday, Carder handed over the pieces to Sen. Charles E. Schumer — chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC) — at an intimate affair on Capitol Hill.
“I am proud to accept this exquisite gift from Lenox ... and honored to present it to the President and Vice President on behalf of the American people,” Schumer said. “As they've done time and time again, Lenox has created a beautiful and memorable gift that is worthy of this historic and sacred occasion.”
For the vase presented to Obama, O'Rourke employed numerous tools — including stone wheels, flatmills, polishing pads, sand carvers and diamond saws — to intricately etch and hand-cut an image of The White House flanked by cherry trees. The vase given to Biden depicts Capitol building is also flanked by blooming cherry trees.
“When I met with the JCCIC in late summer, we all shared the opinion that this gift needed to be different than those previous administrations and that the height and monumental presence be a necessary ingredient,” Carder said. “The inspiration for my design of the vase came from the height and beauty of the Washington Monument. The combination of the height of the vase set on the pedestal base produced an exquisite display of glistening crystal.”
For both of the items, the dimensions of each being 17-inches tall, 16-pounds in weight, O'Rourke achieved that “monumental presence” by melding a base for each made up of four steps of high-quality, optical crystal.
On one base, he etched the president's name and the date of the ceremony. On the other, the vice president's name and the date of the ceremony were inscribed.
Creation of the bases proved the most confounding step in the entire process for O'Rourke, he said.
“You have to bond the glass together and you only have about 40 seconds to hit it four times in a row. It took me several tries to get it,” he said. “For a few days, I was pulling my hair out. I was thinking ‘How am I going to do this?' But that's where you have the force to carry on and get it done. Before you know it, it's complete, and it works out fine.”
Carder — who was present in the nation's capitol for Monday's ceremony — added that it is a point of pride that Lenox has been asked time and again to craft and deliver items of such stature.
“It shows complete confidence in our quality and creativity,” he said.
Despite the fact that O'Rourke's handiwork has graced the hands of a total of five presidents, he insists that he puts as much focus, concentration and vigor into the creations he said “pay the bills” in the days, weeks, months and years spanning each presidential election.
“I get as much satisfaction out of doing a small wedding gift and seeing that look of satisfaction in a couple's eyes,” he said.
But things sure do get intense while he fulfills the Inauguration Day assignments, O'Rourke admitted.
“You tense yourself up, and you tend not to take any shortcuts,” he said. “You have so little time for improvements, you have to hit the road running and get it right the first or second time because it's such a time-consuming project.”
Ironically, O'Rourke said he has never once traveled to Washington to be present for any of the inaugurations for which his work plays such a unique and important role.
“Politics do not matter to me; I just want to get them the items so they can carry on from there,” he said.
What truly matters to O'Rourke, he said, is the future of the glass-cutting trade locally.
With that in mind, he said he would like to start a training class in the discipline.
“When you realize you're getting older, you'd like the younger generation to carry this tradition forward,” O'Rourke said. “We've been in Mt. Pleasant for so long, but there's not much of a glass industry now.”
The people of Mt. Pleasant are fortunate O'Rourke calls the borough home, said borough Manager Jeff Landy.
“We're lucky. Peter O'Rourke is really a legend in our area. He's recognized nationally,” said Landy, who with borough Mayor Jerry Lucia cofounded the Mt. Pleasant Glass & Ethnic Festival in 1986. “I know, through the glass festival, we try to showcase him, but I still don't think he gets the recognition he deserves.”
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.