Flashback Friday: Looking Back at the Death of Hubert Humphrey, a Minnesota Political Icon

January 12, 2018 04:19 PM

Bill Hamman - like many Minnesotans of his era - grew up with Hubert Humphrey as the dominant figure on the state's political landscape.

It's why the Vietnam veteran and then-member of the Minnesota National Guard volunteered for duty in the days following the longtime U.S. senator and former vice president's death 40 years ago this week - joining the other guardsmen who accompanied the body and helped provide security at a public viewing held at the state capitol in St. Paul.


"I thought he was one of the greatest politicians, and one of the greatest human beings, that not just Minnesota, but America ever produced," Hamman said.

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"He never got the chance to be president, which was a shame. But he was an amazing man."

Humphrey served as Minneapolis mayor from 1945-48, in the U.S. Senate from 1949-64, as vice president under Lyndon Johnson from 1965-69, and was again elected to the Senate from Minnesota in 1970 - serving until his death from bladder cancer at home in Waverly at age 66 on the evening of Jan. 13, 1978.

It was a charmed life, but one in which he took great care to include his family, recalls his son Skip, who went on to a long political career in the state himself.

"I can remember him calling up when I was an undergraduate at American University (in Washington D.C.) and saying to be at the gate (to the White House) at a certain time because we were going to meet President (John) Kennedy," Skip Humphrey recalls.

"He was the Democratic whip in the Senate at that point. And sure enough, we were escorted into the White House. He felt it was important that if we had the chance to meet a very important person like that, we should take advantage of it.

"So it was like that a lot. But then we'd be at home in Waverly and he'd be out on a boat having a ball with the kids. Or we had a swimming pool, and he'd be swimming with his grandkids. It was a mix between the public opportunities we had and a private life that was also very open and very comforting."

For all he obtained in his political career, though, the nation's highest office always remained just out of Humphrey's reach. He sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, but came up short against the dynamic Kennedy.

He gained the nomination in 1968 when Johnson declined to seek re-election in the wake of rising opposition to the Vietnam War. However, the bruising Democratic battle that year, pitting Humphrey against Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (who was assassinated after winning the California primary) and fellow Minnesotan, anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy, culminated in violence at the convention in Chicago.

The process left Humphrey forced to play catch-up to Republican Richard Nixon in the general election. He lost narrowly in the popular vote that year (Nixon won a wider margin in the electoral college).

He'd try again in 1972, but the Democratic nod that year went to South Dakota Senator George McGovern instead.

But his son said he never gave in to negativity.

"He was the eternal optimist," Skip Humphrey said. "The Happy Warrior - that's what they called him. Dad just had a lifelong ability to focus on the positive."

He long retained the fondness of many of the state's voters, including Hamman.

"I remember being a young man, maybe 10 or 12 years old, and my dad was a police officer here in Hastings," he recalls. "He got called to a disturbance and he ended up apprehending a criminal who had been on the FBI's most-wanted list.

"Sen. Humphrey came to a parade in town and he stopped by to give my father a citation. It was a really special moment."

Walter Mondale had been appointed to fill Humphrey's Senate seat when he resigned to take over as vice president following the 1964 election. And 12 years later, the fellow Minnesotan would become vice president himself as Jimmy Carter's running mate in 1976.

It was the office in which Mondale was serving at the time of Humphrey's death.

"He has dominated our time, which is impressive," Mondale said in the wake of the news. "For more impressive is that he has given us an example of decency and a commitment to human service that is an inspiration to all of us."

Humphrey's death pulled together many, both in Washington and back home in Minnesota. His body was first flown back to Washington to rest in state at the capitol. Among those arriving to pay their respects was Nixon, making his first return to the nation's capital since resigning the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal in 1974.

He was there, Skip Humphrey said, at his father's request.

"In his last days, when he was very, very sick, he was making all sorts of calls to people he knew all over the world," Skip Humphrey said. "One of those calls was to Richard Nixon. And he asked him to come to his funeral. He said 'You need to be there.' My dad thought no president should ever be disgraced or banned from attending an event of that nature."

After that ceremony, Humphrey's body was returned to Minnesota for a public viewing attended by thousands in the State Capitol rotunda, followed by a funeral at St. Paul's House of Hope Presbyterian Church.

President Carter was among those in attendance.

But it had been the presence at the Capitol of those like Hamman that perhaps best exemplified why Humphrey remained at the center of political life in the state for so long.

"I remember the day was so cold and people stood outside for so long waiting to get in," he remembers. "There were some issues with frostbite, I think. But seeing the respect and reverence the public gave him was amazing. It was really a testimony to the role he played in so many people's lives and what he meant to them. It was one of the real honors of my life to be able to be part of that experience."


Frank Rajkowski

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