Alumni Voices: Rubbing Elbows with History

By William T. Utley '34

Chicago, the summer of 1940 and the Democrat's National Convention was in town. The big question: With President Franklin Roosevelt finishing his second term who would replace him as the party's standard bearer? Under his leadership the country was just emerging from the devastating depression and drought of the '30s. Add to this our growing concern for Europe reeling under Adolph Hitler's rampaging Nazi troops and the selection of a candidate was truly no small matter.

As a graduate student in political science at the University of Chicago, and final exams but a few days away, I resisted the agonizing urge to attend the Convention's opening activities. The nominating session was, however, a must – whatever the cost.

My registered address was Arkansas and the state's delegation was headquartered at the Stevens Hotel. It was my hope that this would be my key to the Convention. The day of the nomination I took an early train into the city. The hotel floor assigned to the delegation was packed and a whirl of activity. A receptionist gave me the name of the delegation's Secretary who was handling arrangements and indicated the crowded corridor leading to his office. With this mob the likelihood of getting to him was minimal, but I was determined.

The door to the Secretary's suite was barricaded by a most formidable person who challenged everyone seeking entrance, and virtually no one was making it past him. This called for a desperate strategy. By now I had worked my way forward and there was but one person ahead of me and he was trying to convince the "keeper of the portal" that his business warranted admission. It was now or never. Taking a deep breath I stepped forward and, in the most official and commanding voice I could muster, said, "Gentlemen, I have a most pressing appointment with the Secretary. Will you please let me by?" "Oh, excuse me," was his reply as he stepped aside, moving the frustrated person with him and, in the same motion, opened the door. As it closed behind me I took a moment to get my breath, collect my thoughts and compose myself.

The Secretary was now readily accessible and most gracious when I explained my situation. He gave me a note to a Mr. Andy Frain whose firm was handling internal traffic at the Coliseum, the Convention site. Suffice it to say, I lost no time getting to him. The note did the trick for he gave me a badge and credentials for an Assistant Sergeant at Arms, and assigned me to a VIP section, up a broad staircase and just above the main floor. Frain also said I would be assisted by two uniformed Chicago police, and that I should be on station by 5:30 p.m. This struck me as a bit heavy on control, and early too, for as I recalled, the "call to order" was 8:00 p.m. But, who was I to question a professional? I was in and that was the important thing.

By 7 p.m. the section was filled which again I thought strange inasmuch as it was a reserved area, with admission by special passes. Even more strange, ticket holders continued to come, in numbers well beyond the reserve capacity. One individual, with no credentials at all, tried to talk his way in. Finally, in frustration, he exploded, "Do you know who I am?" When I told him I had not the foggiest idea, he announced, "I am One-eye Connoly." This rang a bell for One- eye was a notorious international gate-crasher whose antics were covered by the media. He didn't make it into my little reserve, although I later saw him on the main floor. Subsequently it was learned that the flood of VIP ticket holders was due to the Kelly-Nash machine (the Democrat organization that ran Chicago) having gotten the printers' plates for the tickets, ran off duplicates which were given to local favorites and told to "be there early," ahead of the legitimate holders who, understandably, came later. Needless to say, there were quite a number of irate VIPs, more than a few of whom were a bit vocal in their displeasure. But it was a situation that could not be unraveled and I was glad the "men in blue" were there.

Ultimately things quieted and, as my real objective was to be in the arena for the nominations, my "companions at arms" suggested that since there was nothing further to be done at that position, I might as well go down to the floor. Thanking the two of "Chicago's finest," I joined the milling mob on the ground level. Checking the area I was immediately convinced my beribboned Assistant Sergeant at Arms badge would not get me through those tightly monitored doors.

Even though the preliminaries had already begun, there was a stream of people going in and coming from the main hall. The Stevens Hotel ruse came to mind as the only alternative – be aggressively creative. The oppressive heat of the summer night in Chicago was intensified by the huge crowd inside the Coliseum, giving me an idea. At a nearby refreshment stand I bought two large iced drinks and made my way to the nearest arena entrance where sweating monitors were busily checking for correct credentials. As I approached the door I raised the large cups to about shoulder height somewhat, but not totally, obscuring my badge and pushed by the checker, exclaiming, "I've got to get these to the Arkansas delegation." He nodded and I was in.

About twenty five feet inside I stopped to figure where I might have a good position from which to watch the proceedings. I was sipping one of the drinks when a young man beside me asked, "What are you doing with that other one?" I replied, "It has served its purpose and you may have it." Declining his offer to pay for it, I moved to the center of the front row, directly in front of the stage and podium. I positioned myself, half sitting and half leaning on the front of the box of Indiana Senator Frederick Van Nuys and his family (with his permission, of course). I had a ring-side seat for all the action.

When the time finally came for the nomination of Presidential candidates, the place erupted as the loudspeakers boomed over and over, "We want Roosevelt." The chant, coupled with stamping feet, was taken up by the packed galleries. It was no contest and F.D.R. was on his way to a third term -the first President to break the two term tradition set by George Washington, one hundred and forty three years earlier. It was later revealed that the pandemonium was triggered by the "machine" having taken over the Coliseum's sound system. Since the system's control center was located deep in the Coliseum's basement and the voice identified as that of Thomas Garry, Superintendent of Sewers, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE, a not particularly Democrat oriented local paper, termed the incident "the voice from the sewer," a phrase still used when referring to the convention. The demonstration went on and on and on.

The streetcar got me to the station just in time to catch the last hourly train to the University and a long walk to my room. It was about 2:30 a.m. with a final exam but a few hours away. I can't say what my performance was, but following the exam I told the professor what I had done, He must have been truly understanding, and in view of what had happened at the Convention, maybe a bit envious for whatever my performance, he gave me an acceptable grade and the event was a great conversation piece.

Addendum

The 1940 convention was notable because FDR's successful election in the fall to a third term provided the seed for the subsequent movement for and the adoption of the 22nd amendment to the Constitution, barring any further three- term presidents.

Passage of the amendment was delayed until 1951 for, in addition to the normally slow amending process, the nation had become deeply involved in the war to crush Hitler. With Roosevelt's major role in the conduct of that conflict, the country opted to follow Abraham Lincoln who, in 1864, finding himself involved in a similar wartime situation observed, "I may not be the best man, but it is not best to change horses while crossing a stream."

In 1944 with the war very much a reality, FDR was given a fourth term.. He died but a few months after inauguration, passing his mantle to Vice-President Harry S. Truman.

In retrospect, on that hot July evening in 1940 I had truly "rubbed elbows with history."