Q: Your column recently had a trivia question about Vice President Alben Barkley, who was the featured speaker at Washington and Lee University’s Mock Convention in 1956 but he collapsed and died of a heart attack during his talk. Did you know that it was my brother Charlie who had invited him to speak?
David Baldree, of Waterloo
A: No, I did not, but I’m sure my readers will want to learn more about this historic event that now will forever be tied to a bit of local family trivia.
Charlie Baldree, a member of the 1956 Washington and Lee graduating class, was on the student committee responsible for organizing the simulated presidential nominating convention, which many call the most accurate such assembly in the nation.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
As the convention became more recognized, organizers were able to draw increasingly important political luminaries to address it. So in ’56, the student leaders again pondered whom to invite when Baldree spoke up.
“‘We might be able to get Alben Barkley, the vice president, to come speak,’” Charlie said, according to his brother. “All the other kids said, ‘Oh, yeah, right. You’re full of baloney. You’re not going to get the vice president to come here.’”
They didn’t know Baldree, who grew up in Belleville, had an ace up his sleeve. The Baldrees’ father had been born and raised in Milburn, an unincorporated community of about 850 in western Kentucky. It was next door to Wheel, where in 1877 Electa Eliza Barkley gave birth to Alben in a log cabin with the help of Grandma Amanda Barkley, the midwife. Not surprisingly, Alben’s mother and Charlie’s grandmother became good friends.
“I think they still call it the Barkley farm down there where Alben was born and raised,” David said. “In fact, the people in the neighborhood still talk about my grandfather. They said he had the best watermelons around. Well, his farm backed up to a creek that flooded all the time, so there was plenty of water. And my older sister still has a family quilt which has a square in which Electa sewed her name.”
Sure enough, Barkley wrote back, saying he would be thrilled to come. We can only imagine the horror that swept over Charlie as he watched the speech unfold on April 30, 1956, in Lexington, Va. If you go to YouTube, you can hear Barkley describe his climb up the political ladder, before saying, “Now I’m back again as a junior senator. And I’m willing to be a junior. I’m willing to sit in the back row for I would rather be a servant in the house of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty.”
As the students cheer in response, you hear a commotion as Barkley collapses. Within seconds, there are calls for a doctor, but it is too late. Barkley died on the stage at age 78 and was later buried in Paducah, Ky.
“That ended up bothering Charlie for years that here he got Alben Barkley to come speak at the convention and then he dies,” David said.
His late brother, who graduated from law school at Southern Methodist University, would have another brush with the famous when he worked for Henry Wade, the Dallas district attorney who prosecuted Jack Ruby for killing John Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald — and was the defendant in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Later, Charlie worked in the Army JAG Corps before becoming a professor at the University of Maryland.
By the way, already on Feb. 13, Washington and Lee picked Donald Trump as the Republican nominee. Since the convention began in 1908, the school’s students have correctly picked the nominee of the party out of power 20 out of 26 times. However, their candidates have gone on to win the presidential election only eight times.
Catching up on a few more odds and ends:
▪ The Hunt for B-59: Sunday’s column on Vasili Arkhipov, the man who refused to allow his submarine captain to launch a nuclear torpedo during the Cuban Missile Crisis, prompted an interesting call from Roger Quirin. He said that even though the group of ships led by the aircraft carrier USS Randolph had the most sophisticated sub detection technology in the world, it was a pilot landing on the Marshall who happened to spot the Russian sub as he looked out his window.
That may be true, but it may not have the game-changing significance you seem to place on it, according to the National Security Archive at George Washington University. According to its “Submarines of October” chronology, the U.S. Navy had begun to assemble its anti-submarine warfare forces on Oct. 13, two weeks after four Soviet attack subs had left Murmansk for Cuba. Soon, there were daily sightings of Soviet subs by both ship and plane as the Navy tracked the Soviet vessels around the Atlantic.
On Oct. 25, for example, the chronology reports, “Several submarine sightings are reported throughout the day. One of the spotted submarines, Soviet submarine B-59, later cataloged as C-19, is detected at 1811 east of Bermuda.” Finally, on Oct. 27, the chronology says, “With its batteries running low, submarine B-59/C-19 is forced to surface and heads east. Although surrounded by U.S. ships, submarine captain Vitali Savitsky realizes that they are not in a state of war; one of the destroyers has a lively band playing jazz.”
To see the detailed six-page chronology, go to nsarchive.gwu.edu and search for “Submarines of October.”
▪ What’s cooking? Even if you missed it Monday, you still can catch the fourth-season premiere of “A Chef’s Life” at noon Saturday on KETC Channel 9.1. LeeAnn Funk, of Mascoutah, asked about it a couple of months ago, so I hope she has set aside 1 p.m. Mondays for master chef Vivian Howard.
▪ Smart man: After my column on baseball gloves, BND Sports Editor Todd Eschman recalled the story of a Baseball Hall-of-Famer, who, nearing the end of his playing days in 1877, shocked his bare-handed teammates by donning a fielder’s glove. The man in question was Albert Goodwill Spalding, who soon would make a fortune selling baseball equipment — including gloves.
“Coincidence?” Eschman said. “I don’t think so.”
▪ Out of date: After my recent column on Kent Knowles’ request for more information on a bell he found with “1810,” “Mejico” and Catholic symbolism on it, Phyllis Vitale, of O’Fallon, suggested calling St. Louis Testing Laboratories for an accurate date analysis. Thanks for the call, Phyllis, but the lab’s Rob Sinn assures me that the best they could do would be to analyze the bell’s metal composition. Carbon dating for age is only approximate (at best within several decades) and would never be able to tell the exact year it was cast.
What are pilchards more commonly known as in their younger “school” days?
Answer to Friday’s trivia: On Sept. 21, 2002, Sweden’s Nils Bohlin was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Va., for designing the now ubiquitous, life-saving three-point seatbelt for Volvo, which introduced it in 1959. Sadly, the 82-year-old inventor died that very day before he could accept his honor.