AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Rutherford B. Hayes, the nineteenth U.S. president, doesn't get much respect. He's best known for losing the popular vote in 1876, but winning the presidency through Electoral College maneuvering, and that gave rise to a nickname - Rutherfraud. But there's one place where Hayes is a historical heavyweight, in the South American nation of Paraguay. John Otis went there and sent this story.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: In Paraguay, Rutherford B. Hayes looms large. In fact, in this industrial city on the banks of the Paraguay River is named Villa Hayes, the Spanish pronunciation for Hayesville in his honor. Here's why - Hayes took office in 1977 in the aftermath of the Triple Alliance War, a conflict that nearly destroyed Paraguay. The country lost huge chunks of territory to victorious Brazil and Argentina. Later Argentina tried to claim the Chaco, the vast wilderness region of northern Paraguay. At the time there was no United Nations or world court so the two sides asked the United States to settle the dispute and President Hayes sided with Paraguay. The decision gave Paraguay 60 percent of its present-day territory and helped guarantee its survival as a nation, says Maria Teresa Garozzo, director of the Villa Hayes Museum.
MARIA TERESA GAROZZO: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: Hayes is a giant, Garozzo says. He's a spectacular immortal figure for us.
GAROZZO: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: At the museum, Garozzo shows me Hayes's portrait and a copy of his handwritten decision favoring Paraguay that was announced on November 12, 1878. That day is now a holiday in Villa Hayes, which is the capital of a state called Presidente Hayes, or President Hayes.
Next some of the townsfolk lead me to a local elementary school, where a bust of Hayes adorns the courtyard. There's also a Paraguayan soccer team named after Hayes, while a postage stamp bears his likeness. Hayes is such a big deal that people here find it a little disappointing that most Americans are clueless about him.
Ricardo Nunez is the mayor of Villa Hayes. He recalls a recent trip to Washington, D.C. where he asked people what they knew about his city's namesake.
What did they tell you?
MAYOR RICARDO NUNEZ: They say, who? Hayes? Who's Hayes?
OTIS: Mayor Nunez is even more surprised when I tell him about Hayes's derogatory nickname.
NUNEZ: Rutherfraud? Wow. Amazing.
OTIS: After his controversial election in 1876, Hayes served just one term and usually comes in slightly below average in rankings of U.S. presidents. He and First Lady Lucy Hayes are best remembered for the changes they brought to the White House, says Nan Card of the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio.
NAN CARD: He was the first president to have a telephone in the White House. They banned liquor from the White House and they began the Easter Egg Roll.
OTIS: Although Hayes's territorial decision was crucial for Paraguay, the issue occupied very little of his time, says Card.
CARD: We've looked at his diary, his letters and there are some Paraguay in books in his collection, but I think he probably depended pretty much on the secretary of state and people on the ground there and then he made the final decision then.
GAROZZO: (Foreign language spoken).
OTIS: For Garozzo, the museum director, none of that matters. We are Paraguay because of him, she says. Hayes will never be forgotten.
For NPR News I'm John Otis.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.