Early Tragedy Leads to Purposeful Life

By Jeff Lukens

A misfortune early in life sometimes creates a desire to do good things later on. This is one such story.

Adlai was only twelve years old when his older sister asked him to join her friends in a house party for teenagers. He joined in a conversation with an older boy who explained to him that he had recently learned the manual of arms at school. The older boy asked Adlai if he would like to see how it was done. So, Adlai brought him his parent's .22 rifle and the boy gave him a quick demonstration.

Accounts of what happened next vary. Some say Adlai tried to imitate the older boy. Others said he tried to put it away. Whatever the case, it was loaded and went off . . . and a young girl, Ruth Merwin, fell dead in his home.

Adlai ran up to his room . . . and stayed there for a long time . . . alone. No one in Adlai's family ever spoke the girl's name again. The tragedy surely left a huge mark on him, and in a remarkable way.

Adlai went on to excel in his studies at Princeton, Harvard, and Northwestern Universities. As a young lawyer in Chicago, he developed his skills in public speaking and the ways of the world.

In the 1930s, he worked a year on the New Deal program. During World War II, he was special assistant to the Secretary of the Navy and then to the Secretary of State. He also participated in the creation of the United Nations charter.

Adlai was elected governor of Illinois in 1948. As governor, he streamlined many jobs, overhauled their welfare system, doubled school appropriations, stopped commercial gambling, started a highway improvement program, and removed state police meddling in local politics.

By now, you may recognize this man to be Adlai Stevenson. While respected and admired by many people, he ignored the adulation. Armchair psychologists would probably say that feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness from that early tragedy remained with him the rest of his life. It may have been his motivation to strive for a better world.

In 1952, the Korean War was dragging on and President Truman's popularity was waning. Having held the presidency for the previous twenty years, the nation was showing increasing signs of restlessness with the Democratic Party.

Truman proposed that Stevenson seek the party's nomination for president. In his trademark fashion, Stevenson at first hesitated, stating that he was committed to running for a second gubernatorial term. While angering Truman, the more he hesitated, the more attractive as a candidate he became. Convention delegates finally drafted him, and he accepted their call, to run for president.

Stevenson candidacy strove for a more just and equitable society. "Let's talk sense to the American people," he said in his acceptance speech. "Let's tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions . . . but a long patient, costly struggle which alone can assure triumph over the great enemies of man -- war, poverty and tyranny -- and the assaults upon human dignity which are the most grievous consequences of each."

When it was considered politically unwise to do so, Stevenson denounced Senator Joseph McCarthy in his home state of Wisconsin. "Because we believe in the free mind," he said, "we are also fighting those who, in the name of anti-Communism, would assail the community of freedom itself."

Yet, Stevenson had no sympathy for Communists. He supported the Korean War (and later the Vietnam War). He also supported a long list of social and humanitarian causes. Through it all, he was an eloquent and mild-mannered man of high principle and moral purpose.

Stevenson was unsuccessful in his run for president in 1952, and again in 1956, losing both elections to Dwight Eisenhower. Asked later if he had any advice to give to young politicians, his lighthearted response was, "Yes, never run against a war hero." 

His extraordinary influence on American politics remained. The tone and agenda of Kennedy and Johnson Administrations owed much to Stevenson's inspiration.

Though no one knew, that accidental gunshot may have influenced Adlai Stevenson throughout his life. His high-mindedness may have come from that crushing incident of his childhood. One thing for sure, his purposeful life is to be applauded and emulated.

In this election season, we are mindful to look for principled candidates for all office levels. Such a candidate serves a cause beyond him or herself. Adlai Stevenson is an example of just such a person.





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Copyright 2000-2007, Jeff Lukens