My Father

"Before the fact is the dream," a small-town South Dakota druggist used to remind his two sons and two daughters. One of the sons went on to become mayor of Minneapolis, senator from Minnesota, and Vice President of the United States. Hubert H. Humphrey's memoir of his father tells much about both men, and about a vanishing kind of America  

The first time I ever saw my father weep, I was sixteen years old and he was forty-five. It was something I never forgot, not just because it moved me deeply, though it surely did, but because what followed was so typical of my father's approach to life.

I was coming home from high school in Doland, South Dakota, the town we had resided in since I was four years old. It was our town, heart and soul; and the wonderful house we lived in was the kind of home every lucky child has in his life—a warm nest for all the excitement and love of the formative years.

It wasn't a building that would be a showplace in a big city, but it was a pretty good house, as good as any in Doland. It was a large squarish place with white siding and a porch, beautiful shade trees on the front lawn, and a plum and apple orchard in the back. Mother loved that house—it had hardwood floors, a big basement, and two bathrooms. Dad loved it. And for the children—my older brother, Ralph, my two younger sisters, Frances and Fern, and me—it was as taken for granted and as beautiful as the sky or trees.

When I came home that day back in 1927, there was Mother standing under a big cottonwood on the front lawn, and she was crying. She was standing next to Dad and a stranger. Both men looked very solemn, and it was obvious that something was wrong. Mother said, "Dad has to sell the house." There were bills that had to be paid. My father and the man talked for a short time. Then Dad signed a paper. The man went away, and afterward Dad wept.

Seeing my father's tears shook me. He was a broad-shouldered man almost six feet tall, with big strong hands, a jutting chin, and that high forehead which his children inherited from him. His rimless glasses sometimes gave him a professorial look, but he was so jolly and vigorous that the most noticeable thing about him was seemingly inexhaustible zest. He just couldn't be passive about anything.

This event was probably the most profound experience of my early years. It was the moment I ceased being a child, when I began to have an adult's awareness of the pain and tragedy in life. It was sharpened because about the same time other people in town began suffering similar losses of home and happiness. One neighbor committed suicide over the same kind of trouble.

But through the years, I carried with me from that scene not just the picture of this masterful man in tears, but the fact that after this terrible loss he carried not an ounce of bitterness, of apology or defeatism. He continued to do what he had always done—to plunge into life without protecting himself with suspicion, reserve, or emotional caution. People like that enjoy the sunshine of life to the full. But many of them are unprepared for the storms, and when they are shocked or hurt, they withdraw and cover up. Not Dad. The same sensitivity to things he cared for that made him weep carried him beyond this wound into the future. Right up to the time he died, in November of 1949, he had an undiminished appetite for life, the bitter and the sweet, with nothing held back.

Dad was a man in love his whole life. It just never occurred to him to hold back his feelings, to question honest emotion, or to hesitate about the things he valued. What he felt, he felt wholeheartedly. But he was no simple pleasure-seeker. He loved a good time, but for him a good time was something that touched the spirit and had a good purpose. He was a born teacher, a missionary with a sense of humor.

He ran a small-town drugstore, and our lives revolved around the store and the house. I was born in a room over the drugstore—in Wallace, South Dakota—and grew up in the drugstore. But it was typical of my father that his stores were never cold or impersonal places. This didn't mean he was careless. He was a meticulous businessman. He never let us forget the importance of keeping precise books and a sharp eye on inventory. He was one of the most ingenious promoters I have ever met, and he started merchandising items by open displays in his little store long before this became standard doctrine in modern selling. He was probably the most enterprising businessman in town. In his store there was talk about politics, town affairs, and religion, just as there was around our dinner table. They used to say about Dad, "He never sells you a pill without selling you an idea."

Even though he was the town rebel, people liked and respected my father. This was South Dakota in the 1920s. People were religious, and they were Republican, and it was pretty hard to tell where the religion stopped and the Republicanism began. Of the 660 people in Doland, only 5 were Democrats.

Swimming against the tide never bothered my father. He and his brothers were very close, especially in their earlier years in Minnesota. Harry left a teaching career at Stanford to become chief plant pathologist in the Department of Agriculture, and he used to write long letters to Dad from Washington on public policy. He was interested in politics, though not so much in hard party politics.

Uncle John was a strong Republican. When Dad decided he would be a Democrat ("I heard William Jennings Bryan and became a Democrat" was how he explained it), it almost broke up the relationship between him and his brother John.

In Doland Dad was a Democrat among friends and neighbors who took their Republicanism very seriously. And while he was a kind and understanding man, when he got into political debate he gave it everything he had, and that could be pretty vigorous. When Al Smith ran for President in 1928 (and it was a heated issue, both political and religious, in Spink County), Dad was the Democratic county chairman. Smith got five votes in Doland, and everyone knew Dad's was one of them.

My father once ran for state chairman. He was one of the state's leading Democrats, and he shared in the long, hard fight to make South Dakota a truly two-party state. He was elected to the state legislature, and he had higher political ambitions. I know that in a sense he sacrificed his own for me. My desire to return to the University of Minnesota in 1937 posed a problem. I would no longer be available to help run the store, and my father would not be free to pursue his political career as fully as he wanted. Although my leaving for the University would greatly restrict his political activity, he never hesitated for a moment.

Dad had begun my political training long before. For example, back in Doland when most of the town wanted to sell the municipally owned power plant to a private utility, Dad was against it. He was a city councilman then, and he fought the idea tooth and nail. I was only twelve years old, but he would take me to the evening meetings of the council, put me in a chair by a corner window, and then he'd do battle, hour after hour. Toward the latter part of the evening I'd doze off, but I'd wake up when Dad hit another climax. He lost that fight, but his independence, his outspokenness, his spirit never interfered with the mutual respect he and the town had for each other. He was a Democrat and a rebel in a politically orthodox town, but they elected him mayor.

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