FORT JENNINGS, Ohio - William Williamson had never been to this tiny village before yesterday, but he became an instant celebrity the moment he stepped into town.
The retired professor and his wife, Daisy, received applause shortly after they walked into the local school gym, smiling broadly as they wore orange and white carnations that had been given to them.
Mr. Williamson, 81, the great-great-great-grandson of the town's founder, Lt. Col. William Jennings, drove from his Madison, Wis., home to give Fort Jennings residents their first glimpse of the deceased colonel.
Standing before the town mayor, school officials, dozens of residents, and about 220 junior and high school students, Mr. Williamson slowly unfurled a copy of an early 19th century portrait of the colonel, which has been passed down in his family.
“On behalf of William Jennings, I want to thank you and I want you to see what he looked like,” Mr. Williamson said. “And here he is.”
There was silence in the gym - even among the students - as people spent their first few seconds viewing the long-awaited portrait. It will be permanently hung inside the Fort Jennings State Bank.
Historians and residents have scoured for decades in search of a picture of the man who established a fort here during the War of 1812. But they never could find one, nor did they know one existed.
“We've never known what Colonel Jennings looked like,” said Larry Schimmoeller, president of the Fort Jennings Historical Society. “But we've always been hunting for a photo.”
That unexpectedly changed several months ago when Mr. Williamson by chance found Fort Jennings - a town he had never heard of - during an Internet search.
Mr. Williamson immediately called and offered to provide a photograph to the town, thinking then that he would send it or drop it off without fanfare.
But many of the 500 Fort Jennings residents decided instead to throw a celebration in his name.
Members of the American Legion Post 715 greeted Mr. Williamson inside the school gym, as did senior members of the high school band.
School officials boasted to Mr. Williamson about the accomplishments of local students, including a recent state win by the boys basketball team. Others recalled highlights about Colonel Jennings and the village's history.
“Our history and heritage are so easily forgotten, if we don't from time to time take a moment to share it with others,” Mayor Larry Streets told Mr. Williamson. “We are so happy and proud you are here. Thank you very much.”
Throughout the morning, smiles never left the faces of the Williamsons as they were given royal treatment in this village.
Mr. Williamson happily agreed to pose for photographs with town leaders as well as the Putnam County Pork Queen.
Afterward, he posed more for pictures near a monument along the Auglaize River that marks the site of the old fort.
About 40 people turned out to have lunch with Mr. Williamson, and a state legislator sent in a proclamation recognizing the colonel's many accomplishments.
Mr. Williamson described the day in Fort Jennings as a “wild and wonderful event,” and said he was especially proud of all the attention that was paid to his ancestor.
“This is a great pleasure for me,” Mr. Williamson said. “We have come quite a distance and we've enjoyed it.”