Ben Richardson, who grew up in Westport, is one of many people I know who should write a book of memories.
Not long ago he told me the following story that was told to him. Most readers will know about Wendell Willkie, but for those who don’t: He was born in 1892 in Elwood and, like President Trump, had not run for any other office before he ran for president of the U.S. in 1940. He tried to beat Franklin D. Roosevelt and was famous for his “One World” idea. During and after the election, Willkie lived most of the rest of his life on a farm he owned in his wife’s hometown of Rushville (Edith Wilk, a librarian from Rushville). When he died in 1944 he was buried in East Hill Cemetery in Rushville.
Ben’s story: Wendell Willkie lived in Rushville, Indiana, only a couple of blocks from west of where I am now. Willkie ran for President of the United States in 1940 on the Republican ticket. His Democrat opponent was incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt. Willkie ran his campaign from his home. For meetings with special guests, they met at the (fancy for Rushville) Durbin Hotel on 2nd Street.
Kenny McCauley also lived in Rushville. He owned and operated a Standard Oil gas station on Main Street. There was no such thing as self-serve in those days. When the driveway bell rang, the attendant would immediately go out front to see what the driver needed. Then, dispense the gasoline, clean the windshield or check the air pressure in the tires or give directions. “Can I help you?” or “Fill ‘er up?” was the usual greeting.
One day, a new black Lincoln pulled into the driveway. The country hadn’t fully recovered from the Great Depression and there were not many new black Lincolns anywhere, certainly none in the little town of Rushville. Still, it wasn’t a surprise to see it, as the little town had a presidential candidate and it was abuzz with activity. As usual, Kenny went out to see what he could do for the driver and hopefully make a dollar or two.
“Can you tell me where Wendell Willkie lives?” Kenny said he grinned at the driver and said, “Yea, I can tell ya’ where he lives, but you can’t get near the place. The streets are barricaded, there’s state police and G-men all over the place. They won’t let you in there.”
At that time, the back window rolled down and a skinny arm reached out to shake hands. The guy in the back said, “Hello, my name is Henry Ford. I think they’ll let me in to see him.” Which they did.
“Henry Ford was probably the most recognized name in the United States then and he was known around the world. He was the Elon Musk or Bill Gates of the day, and then some. As it turned out, the meeting between Mr. Willkie and Mr. Ford didn’t go well. Kenny’s cousin was Willkie’s secretary and didn’t have any trouble hearing part of their heated conversation, even through closed doors.
Things went from cordial to loud. The last words of their conversation consisted of Willkie saying to Ford, “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let one man run this country!” Ford stormed out of the room with, “You’re beat, Willkie.”
It’s hard to say what influence Henry Ford had on that election. Willkie was a smart man and probably would have made a good president. But Franklin D. Roosevelt was extremely well liked. He was steadily leading the country out of the Great Depression, the Second World War had already started in Europe and FDR promised the nation’s mothers that their sons would never fight on foreign soil (which turned out not to be the case after Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941).
(Note from Pat: I had no idea who Elon Musk was but found him on Wikipedia. Elon Reeve Musk FRS is a business magnate, industrial designer, engineer, and philanthropist. He is the founder, CEO, CTO and chief designer of SpaceX; early investor, CEO and product architect of Tesla, Inc.; founder of The Boring Company; co-founder of Neuralink; and co-founder and initial co-chairman of OpenAI. As for Henry Ford – well you know who he was.)