A Great American

My Dad was a great American. His heritage goes all the way back to the landing of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Ancestor Edward Fuller was one of the passengers on the Mayflower, and one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact. Unfortunately, neither he nor his wife survived that first difficult winter but their young son, Samuel, did. Young Samuel grew up in the new colony under the care of his uncle, Samuel Fuller, who was a doctor and a respected leader. He married and had at least four children. His descendants migrated down the Shenandoah Valley, eventually to settle in Grayson County, Virginia, where my Grandmother Sarah Jane Hash married Timothy Alexander Anderson, to whom my Father was born as the last of their twelve children.

But Dad’s pedigree is not what made him a great American. It was that he took his citizenship seriously. He was limited in education, finishing only third grade at Clem’s Branch School. However, he was interested in the history of America and he learned about it with my two older sisters as they studied history in elementary school. Being a good citizen meant being an informed citizen.

Being a good American also meant guarding and using the right to vote as our forefathers intended. He and Mother were Democrats, but not because their parents were. In fact, many in Dad’s family were Republicans, although I think Mother’s family leaned toward the Democratic Party. My parents made their choice in 1928 when Al Smith was the Democratic choice. Mr. Smith was a Catholic and both sides of the family were opposed to a Catholic president.

My parents were young, idealistic voters the year they chose to go against their families. They may have chosen to support Mr. Smith because they felt that he was the best candidate. He had served four terms as governor of New York and was popular there because of the social reforms he had successfully enacted. It is also possible that these two young voters wanted to exert their independence by refusing to accept what they might have considered a prejudiced opinion toward Mr. Smith because of his religion. They rarely, if ever, showed prejudice against anyone, and so they may have supported Mr. Smith’s candidacy simply because he was a Catholic and they were demonstrating their refusal to be swayed by prejudice. I think the prejudice factor would have weighed heavily in their decision, because I remember that they listened to a radio broadcast of a sermon by Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen every Sunday afternoon. Whatever the reason for their political choice, they would not have made the decision without much discussion and thought. I can remember times after dinner or at breakfast over coffee when they discussed important issues. They often made decisions by discussing the pros and cons, usually after a meal.

Their decision, four years later, to support Franklin D. Roosevelt was again going against many of their family members. This time, however, it would have been an easier decision to make. They were young parents struggling to make a good life for themselves and their family during the Hoover administration and they were probably disillusioned by Hoover’s inability to bring relief to the millions of Americans who suffered during the Great Depression following the stock market crash in 1929. Although Hoover had successfully led relief operations for the Allies during World War I, he had failed to ease the distress at home.

When Roosevelt came on the scene with promises and with plans for ending the economic crunch, my parents either believed him or decided to take a gamble; after all, what had anyone at that time to lose? In spite of Roosevelt’s sweeping economic reforms, they still struggled to pay off the debt for the farm, but a stable economy in the nation gave them less to worry about. They became great admirers of Roosevelt and supported his unprecedented three terms. Thereafter, they remained staunch Democrats.

At every election, Dad worked at the polls. On that day, he would get up at four o’clock, get dressed in his only suit, white shirt and tie and saddle up a horse while Mom made him breakfast and packed a lunch. He would also pack a lunch for the horse.

Later in the day, Mother would take my little sister and me to the polling place so that she could vote. I would stare, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, at my father, the important man who was running the election, or so I thought. When the weather was pleasant we walked the three miles. When it was rainy or cold there was always someone with a car who would assist voter turnout. The polling place was a little cabin on the farm of Charley and Ruth Harrington near Major School. It was a one-roomed structure with a potbellied stove in one corner. The other corners were curtained off to provide places where the citizens could mark their ballots in private.

Always, when the polls closed at sunset, Dad and Mr. Spencer, the Republican at the polls, rode their horses across Buck Mountain (approximately fifteen miles) to deliver the ballots to the courthouse in Independence. It would be very late when Dad returned home and usually only my mother stayed up to wait for him.

I remember one year when election day was cold and rainy. The rain turned to sleet in the late afternoon. Mother was worried about Dad and we all stayed up with her to wait for his return. He was wet and chilled through when he finally got home. Mother hurried to get him a cup of hot coffee as he sat by the kitchen stove to dry out and warm up, then she served him the supper she had kept hot. To my sisters and me that night, our Dad was a hero, right there alongside Paul Revere. To Dad, he had only done what any American would gladly do. Being a good citizen often required personal sacrifice.

One day in late summer when I was perhaps 8 or 9 a tall, dark-haired stranger came to visit our home. He was walking and visiting the voters in our remote area. I can’t figure out why he would have taken the time to stop at our impoverished-looking place, a small, ancient log structure, unless he knew of Dad’s involvement with the election system. It was late in the day and both parents were home. My sisters and I huddled in the yard and wondered why that man in the white shirt, dress pants and dusty dress shoes was calling on our parents.

The man was Cliff Sims, and he was running for County Commissioner. My parents were not easily swayed by politicians, but they liked Mr. Sims from the very first. We kids didn’t hear the conversation, but I can imagine their giving him a good grilling and telling him what they expected from the one who would get their vote. From then on, Mr. Sims had their unwavering support. We often saw him when we were in Independence and he never failed to greet my parents by name.

Dad was often selected for jury duty. It was always Dad, not Mother, who got the hand-delivered summons. I remember the first time a uniformed officer appeared at our door and asked for Dad. I was frightened. I didn’t know what a summons was, but the word sounded ominous. I was afraid the officer was going to take Dad off to jail for some unknown infraction! My Mother quickly put my fears to rest by explaining what this was all about.

On the appointed day, Dad would pack his well-worn suitcase for a week’s stay in Independence. He would again saddle up a horse and load a week’s supply of oats along with his suitcase. Dad never complained of the inconvenience of taking a week out of his busy life and Mother never complained about having all the farm maintenance to do while he was away. Being a good citizen meant serving willingly in any capacity. The court session took place in late February, just before time to start the spring plowing.

The students in the civics class at our high school, Oak Hill Academy, were taken by bus to Independence one day each year so that they could observe the court proceedings. My sisters and I felt proud of our Dad, setting in the jury box, dressed in his suit, white shirt and tie, listening intently to the testimony of the witnesses. At break time, he would send a note to whichever daughter was in the observing class, asking if everything was going well at home. A good citizen respected and upheld the legal system, striving to make it fair and equitable for all.

One of Dad’s greatest assets in my thinking was his ability to change his mind. Some may consider that a weakness, particularly in today’s political climate when a change of stance on an issue often is considered “waffling.” In actuality, it can be a show of strength. Sometimes more information or more study about an issue would lead Dad to adjust his thinking.

A situation I remember well was when the bill was introduced to amend the constitution to give 18 year-olds the vote. At first Dad was opposed, as were most adults of our acquaintance. Then Mildred’s high school class debated the issue and she was on the side in favor of the amendment. Dad helped her develop her arguments. They discussed the issue during supper for several nights, then after supper they compiled their arguments. Mildred’s side won the debate, and in the process of thinking it through, Dad was convinced that it was right. If eighteen-year-olds were old enough to be drafted and sent to war, then they should be granted the right to a voice in the government they were defending.

I wonder how Dad would react today with the barrage of political half-truths and outright lies that are thrown from every direction toward the voter. I think he would earnestly seek the real facts by sifting through the detritus of our present campaigning, and to the best of his ability form an opinion. His opinion would be subject to change if more revelation warranted. One of Dad’s oft-spoken observations was an ancient proverb: “A wise man changes his mind, but a fool never will.” Through the years I have often found that to be true. A good citizen is a thinking citizen.

In the summer of 1952 I turned twenty-one. It was an election year. On my birthday, Dad took me to the home of the authorized registrar for our district, Grover Cornett, paid my poll tax and I registered to vote in the fall election. The voting age was still twenty-one. It was 1971 before the twenty-sixth amendment was ratified that gave 18 year olds the right to vote, and poll tax was required until the twenty-fourth amendment was ratified in 1964, declaring the poll tax discriminatory, and therefore unconstitutional.

On the way home after I had registered, Dad reminded me that voting was a serious matter, that whomever I voted for had to be my own decision, but that decision should be made carefully and with much thought.

I didn’t tell him that I had already made up my mind to vote for the Democrat, whoever he was. I had decided that during the spring semester at Westhampton College because of the intimidating views of the professor of the Latin American History class I had taken. Although the subject had nothing to do with the upcoming election, this professor, whose name I have mercifully forgotten, constantly referred to Democrats as people of little intelligence. He used various creative ways to express his disdain for them.

The Democratic Convention was held a few days after I had registered. Dad and I listened to most of it on the radio. We were supporting Estes Kefauver of Tennessee for the nomination. He was “one of us.” He had a Tennessee mountain drawl and he was down-to-earth. He had a commonsense approach to concerns of the day, being among the first to approach civil rights issues. My first setback as a new voter was his losing the nomination to Adlai Stevenson, who would run against Dwight D. Eisenhower, the popular World War II General who had distinguished himself for his outstanding service, in particular as he led the Normandy invasion that liberated France and drove to the final downfall of Hitler’s Germany.

Back at Westhampton College that fall, I went to the business office one day and unceremoniously cast my first vote, by absentee ballot, giving halfhearted support to Adlai Stevenson. I knew that this was a symbolic gesture because Eisenhower was already the winner in the hearts of Americans. And that was fine with me; like most Americans, “I liked Ike.” What I really wanted to do with this vote was to cast it against such prejudices as I had experienced in the Latin American History class. Such attitudes would never exist in the mindset of real Americans, such as my Father.

January, 2008

1 comment

  1. Mr. Morris, Do you know anything about little silver tokens form Jenkins store to trade for grocerys? I found one. On one side it says Jenkins & Jenkins Flatridge Virginia. On the other side it says Good for 5 Cents in Merchandise. I am trying to find out how old it is.

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