Ulysses Grant Dietz was born and raised in Syracuse as a boy with two important names. The first, of his great-great-grandfather Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, and the second, of the prominent Dietz family, owners of the Dietz lantern company.

But growing up as a young, gay man in Syracuse, he was just “Grant.”

“By being named Ulysses, the world paid attention to me as if I was an authority of Ulysses S. Grant,” said Dietz, which he was decidedly not, until he embraced his full name later in life and started to research his family history.

Dietz self-published “Growing Up Grant: A Gay Life in the Shadow of Ulysses S. Grant” in October, a book about the implications of growing up gay in Syracuse and of bearing the weight of those two well-known monikers. The memoir offers a look into the life of one boy in Syracuse at the crossroads of post-Stonewall change for gay life and his own histories from both sides of the family tree.

“It’s an unfashionable story at the moment,” said Dietz, who has sold about 400 copies of the book. “Memoirs and biographies are so important because every story is a piece of the big picture.”

Before he grew into his name as a teenager and came out as gay as a young adult, Dietz was just another kid in the ‘60s crisscrossing the town on his bicycle. He used to catch Christopher Lee vampire flicks at the now-demolished Eckel Theatre, next to St. Paul’s Cathedral where he went to church, and James Bond movies at the Landmark Theatre.

“We took it totally for granted that we were safe,” said Dietz. He said he would go out to the shops and storekeepers would know him by name. “It was a small enough town that they’d say, ‘Oh, we’ll just put it on your mother’s account,’” said Dietz, “It was ridiculous.”

In Syracuse, “being a Dietz was way more important than being a descendant of U.S. Grant,” he said, “because our name was on that smokestack.”

The R.E. Dietz Co. lantern factory moved into Syracuse in the late 1800s, though no one from the family lived in the city until Dietz’s Uncle Gerry married a local and settled here in 1940. He blazed the trail for Dietz’s father and mother, John Sanderson and Julia Grant, to follow five years later.

The R.E. Dietz Co. factory stopped making lanterns in 1971 and the building has since been turned into apartments. The smokestack is gone, but the Dietz name is still painted across the front of the brick building in neat black and white.

“The fact is, everybody knew who I was because of that,” said Dietz, “and because then I was also one of eight children who went through the school system in Syracuse.” Dietz chuckled for a moment over the phone from his house in New Jersey, where he lives with his husband of 46 years. “I think I actually had the temerity to do a social studies project on the Dietz Company.”

Dietz only started to use his full name when he went off to boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 1970. By then, to a teenage Dietz, the name Ulysses seemed potentially cool, he wrote.

With his full name on display, Dietz was met with the popular and unflattering characterizations of his great-great grandfather, what Dietz calls in his book the Big Three myths: “he was a bad student at West Point (therefore, somehow, stupid); he was the worst president ever; and he was a drunk.”

“Any one of these, in my experience thus far, would inevitably be brought up by anyone I met, as soon as they learned the reason I was called Ulysses,” wrote Dietz.

Ulysses S. Grant was a general for Abraham Lincoln’s Union army during the Civil War, and was elected president in 1869, a post he held for two terms while overseeing the country’s Reconstruction. He died in 1885 from throat cancer.

For Dietz, it wasn’t until 1981 with the publication of William McFeely’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Ulysses S. Grant that Dietz began to investigate the history of his name. He now works at the Ulysses S. Grant Association and gave his first of several speeches at Grant’s Tomb for the late president’s annual birthday association in 1987.

Dietz is now retired from an almost four decade career as an art curator for the Newark Museum in New Jersey. New Jersey is home now, but he would come back to upstate New York at least once a year to visit his mother Julia Dietz, who was the last surviving grandchild of Ulysses S. Grant until she died in 2019.

Most of Dietz’s formative experiences of coming out as gay happened while he was a student at Yale University, where he met the man he would eventually marry. By then, Syracuse was “a constant presence” in Dietz’s life but was no longer home-base, he said.

Dietz watched from afar as the city slumped into economic downturn. He remembers especially the destruction of the stately 19th century mansions that ran in a row down James Street from his childhood home on Sedgwick Drive.

“It covered the history of American architecture; it was this fabulous street of beautiful houses,” said Dietz, “and they’re all gone.”

Dietz said his home library is full of books on old houses, and historical preservation is a big reason he wrote his memoir: “Not just my kind of story, but all sorts of stories don’t get told because there’s nobody to write them down.”

Dietz’s life is firmly rooted in New Jersey with his husband and two kids, but he still has childhood friends that link him to Syracuse. And here, his childhood name lives on.

“That’s how I’m still referred to in Syracuse, by whoever is left who remembers me,” said Dietz, “they still call me Grant.”

Jules Struck writes about life and culture in and around Syracuse. Contact her anytime at jstruck@syracuse.com or on Instagram at julesstruck.journo.

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