Column: Wilkie's bid for oval office brought him hereWORTHINGTON — Seventy-three years ago this month — September 1939 — Wendell Willkie was scarcely known in America. Seventy-two years ago this month — September 1940 — Wendell Willkie was the Republican nominee for the White House and one of the most popular men in the nation.
By: Ray Crippen, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Seventy-three years ago this month — September 1939 — Wendell Willkie was scarcely known in America. Seventy-two years ago this month — September 1940 — Wendell Willkie was the Republican nominee for the White House and one of the most popular men in the nation. There were throngs wherever the political idol made a public appearance.
It was Sept. 26 when Willkie came to Worthington. He was the focus of one of the city’s most memorable days. Worthington Republicans remembered it as Willkie Day.
Americans are focused on another presidential campaign. It is a fitting time to recall the campaign of 1940.
Worthington, 1940, was not Worthington we know today. The city’s population was 5,918 — compared with 12,764 (2010). Less than half the size. Worthington’s connections to the world were telegrams and steam engines on the railroad tracks. Highway 60 from Worthington to the Iowa border was a gravel road.
The Willkie campaign planned to skip Minnesota. This stirred a spirited protest from Minnesota’s Boy Governor, Harold Stassen, 32 years old. “You must come to Minnesota!”
“Where would we go?” Willkie planners wondered. They were on a train bound east to Fargo. “After Sioux Falls, go to Org,” was the response. “Back the campaign train into Worthington from Org so that Willkie can speak from the rear platform at the depot.” So it came to be. 1:45 p.m.
It is likely everyone at Worthington wanted to get to the depot that afternoon. The crowd might be fewer than 6,000, but Gov. Stassen was organizing things.
There would be two caravans of about 100 cars each driving from the Twin Cities. There would be an auto caravan from Hutchinson and a caravan from Austin. Republican leaders from southwest counties said they would be leading contingents. Worthington’s police advised local residents to leave their cars in their driveways or garages. “There won’t be room in town for all the cars,” Police Chief Victor Giesendorfer speculated. Elden Rowe, Nobles County native and Minnesota’s new highway patrol chief, arrived to assist with crowd control.
Willkie planners were pleased —surprised — as the 12-car campaign train came in view of the Worthington depot. Newsmen said there were 15,000 people crowded into the railyard, from the depot to the J.C. Boote Hatchery buildings.
Blue sky. Bright sun. Schools were dismissed.
Gov. Stassen stepped on the rear platform and introduced Mrs. Willkie. When the candidate appeared, the cheers may have been heard at Brewster.
Worthington’s popular mayor, Heinie Kragness, stepped toward the platform clad in an overall and a red-checked shirt, required garb for Turkey Day, which was scheduled the next Saturday. Kragness lifted a live, flapping gobbler to the nominee. Worthington newsman Perry Carter reported:
“Governor Stassen caught the turk by the neck while Mr. Willkie somehow managed to get some sort of hold elsewhere and they lifted the big bird into fame. The gobbler disappeared into the car and was seen no more…” (What do you guess became of that turkey?)
Scattered through the throng were spectators from Sioux Falls. They had bet the Willkie crowd at Sioux Falls (40,832) would be bigger than the Willkie crowd at Worthington. Now they weren’t sure. P.O. Lien at his Livewire Variety store reported he helped visitors from Sioux City.
There were memorable moments in some local lives. A limited number from the crowd were invited to step forward to shake Willkie’s hand. Harriet Sather, Worthington high school teacher, was the first of these. Inez Madsen of Worthington, vice chair of the Minnesota Young Republicans, was invited to board the candidate’s car at Sioux Falls ,and she rode with Willkie to Worthington. Ray Mork, Nobles County Republican chair, was taken aboard the train at Org and escorted directly to a meeting with the candidate.
It was a day people knew they would never forget. Their enthusiasm remained high. Willkie offered a blessing: “May God bless you and guide you in these perilous times.”
On Election Day, Wendell Willkie received more votes than any man who ever campaigned for the White House, both the winners and the losers.
Alas for Willkie. He was pitted against President Franklin D. Roosevelt, bidding for a third White House term. FDR received even more votes.
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.