Friday, October 17, 2008


By Jim Heffernan
Looks like the Northland won’t be visited by either of the major party candidates for president this time around. Too bad. It’s always fun when they include Duluth-Superior in their campaigns.

Most of us remember that four years ago both President George W. Bush and John Kerry touched down here or close by. Bush, recall, put on a rally at the DECC; Kerry held one in Cloquet.

Not quite so many of us remember other campaign visits by presidents or would-be presidents, especially looking back more than a half-century, but I do.

President Harry S. Truman campaigned in Duluth and Superior in 1948, arriving in Superior by train, and then motoring to Duluth for a parade along Superior Street downtown. I was there, quite young, but the occasion remains a vivid memory for me because it was the first president I’d ever seen in person.

I was in fourth grade at Duluth’s Lincoln Elementary that election year. The Truman visit in 1948 illustrates some stark differences between that era of presidential politicking and today (other than getting around by train).

The arrival of the president was so eagerly anticipated that it was announced in schools across the city that any student who wanted to see the president would be excused for a half day if parents sent a note. If memory serves (and it isn’t always precise), all of the kids in my fourth grade class brought notes. One girl’s parents insisted she be released earlier than the set time, bringing out the wrath of our teacher.

We were Democrats around our house – my father being a strong union man. And while my folks weren’t politically active, they knew they were for Truman in his race against Republican New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, whom everybody believed was going to win.

With my mother, I stood on the corner of First Avenue East and Superior Street, in front of the Hayes Block, on that exciting afternoon. My father worked in that building. Large crowds lined Superior Street for blocks and some people even positioned themselves on rooftops of buildings for a better view of the president.

It was a beautiful autumn afternoon, as I recall it, and right on schedule we could see the Truman motorcade approaching from west to east. Truman sat alone on the lowered top of a big dark-colored convertible, his feet on the back seat. He wore a light suit and smiled and waved as he was slowly driven through the city’s main business district. A group of teenage boys on the roof of a building across the street from us yelled “Phooey on Dewey,” which is about as rough as the campaign got in those pre-TV (at least here) days.

In what used to be called a nonce, the grey-haired president had passed us, as his motorcade (I don’t actually recall other vehicles, but I suppose there were some) completed its slow procession through downtown Duluth.

The logistics for the day called for him to speak from the back of his train in Superior before being driven to Duluth for the Superior Street promenade.

As a 9-year-old Democrat (because my father was), I was thrilled to see this Democratic president. Not so thrilled were my closest friends at the time, the children of a strongly Republican family.

One of the kids in the family, curious to see Truman in spite of everything, walked from their West End home to the intersection of Garfield Avenue and Superior Street in hopes of catching a glimpse of Truman as he was driven from Superior to Duluth for the parade. It turns out the family’s dog was Republican, too. A notorious car-chaser in those pre-leash law days, the dog had followed the boy to Garfield, and, true to form, went after the car containing the president, viciously biting at its tires.

Unfortunately for our Republican friends, though, the president survived their dog’s attack and went on to defeat Dewey in the election.

So there is justice, after all.


Anonymous said...

great fun to read. Midnight? chirp

Jim Heffernan said...

Not Midnite (nor Midnight), but a dog friends/neighbors the Swanstroms had named Joe, after G.I. Joe, a popular character during and after WW II -- even more popular than Joe the Plumber. That family previously had another large, black dog named Midnight that was poisoned by a neighbor (we think we know which one), whose legacy was that we named our dog Midnite, spelling it that way intentionally and for irony because if there's one thing our family takes great pride in, it's spelling.