Wendell Willkie: “I stand before you without a single pledge or promise or understanding of any kind except for the advancement of your cause and the preservation of American democracy”.

Every August I get excited over the 17th and 19th.

August 19th is the anniversary of the births of Orville Wright, and his younger sister, Katharine Wright.  I love these historically rich days that mean a good deal to me.

Wendell Willkie was the ill-fated dark horse Republican candidate for President during the 1940 elections. He returned to our mutual-hometown, Elwood, Indiana, to assure his acceptance as the GOP’s candidates.  Willkie was a former Democrat and Wall Street lawyer who broke with FDR over the New Deal and switched parties. His winning of the nomination came as a surprise to the Republican base, who were betting on either Thomas E. Dewey or Robert A. Taft, the son of US President and Chief Justice, William Howard Taft, to clinch the nomination. But the idea of “changing horses in mid-stream” (a popular campaign phrase) and the War in Europe added to a feeling of anxiety at the thought of a change of parties in the White House.  Even so, the margin of victory for FDR was narrower than the previous election.  After his defeat, Willkie wound up being recruited by FDR and was a staunch supporter of Lend-Lease program and aid to the Allies prior to our involvement in the War as well an early supporter of Civil Rights before his death in 1944.    Wendell Willkie on the National Stage

When Willkie returned to Elwood (Wendell Willkie’s Childhood), an estimated 300,000 (some even say 500,000) folks descended upon the small town.  Madison County Historian Stephen T. Jackson wrote an incredible tribute to Willkie Day in The Herald Bulletin, Thousands drawn to Elwood in 1940 to see Wendell Willkie.

When I began working at the Elwood Public Library as a freshman in high school, one of the first assignments given me by librarian, and dear family friend, Margie Stiner, was to reorganize the Indiana History Room which contained all the memorabilia of Willkie Day.  I was in heaven!

I was raised on the family’s stories of Willkie Day.  My great-grandmother, Thelma Barmes, rented out beds for several days to complete strangers.  My grandfather’s sister, Evelyn, sold ice water for $2 a glass. My grandfather, Leroy Barmes, showed me the various sites – where the acceptance speech took place, where Willkie stood in front of the old high school, where the sleeper cars for the celebrities were harbored during the festivities.

‎”The only soil in which liberty can grow is that of a united people. We must have faith that the welfare of one is the welfare of all. We must know that the truth can only be reached by the expression of our free opinions, without fear and without rancor. We must acknowledge that all are equal before God and before the law. And we must learn to abhor those disruptive pressures, whether religious, political, or economic, that the enemies of liberty employ.”

Wendell Willkie’s 1940 GOP Presidential Acceptance Speech

After surviving several heart attacks, Willkie finally succumbed, dying on October 8, 1944 at age fifty-two. ER in her October 12, 1944 “My Day” column eulogized Willkie as a “man of courage [whose] outspoken opinions on race relations were among his great contributions to the thinking of the world.” She concluded, “Americans tend to forget the names of the men who lost their bid for the presidency. Willkie proved the exception to this rule.”

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