Sunday, April 23, 2006

First in a Small Town Better than Second in Rome: St. Cloud’s Most Prominent Lawyer Undertakes a Cross-Examination. That and a Missing Bar-Maid

[Another segment of reminisces for my kids and grandchildren.]

Well, ex-cuse-me! I said when a newsroom colleague seemed breathless because the great Fred Hughes had called. So I shrugged and asked: What’s so important about him except that he has a lot of money: probably the richest and most influential man in town and can buy and sell everybody at this paper including the publisher any day of the week? No big deal. I’m pretty big stuff myself, so no surprise he’s calling me.

It was fun to be cocky to my colleague as a $67.50 weekly reporter. What was Fred Hughes to me or I to him? Being rooted in penury, I had no great awe for him. Normally he should be talking to the publisher, Freddie Schilplin. St. Cloud, Minnesota, straddling the Mississippi river in the state’s central region, was known as the Granite City because of its quarries. Why he wanted to talk to me was probably to pick my brains on some matters the publisher wouldn’t know. In a small city in the heart of the most Germanic, Catholic county in the nation, heavily conservative Republican and historically isolationist, Hughes was an anomaly: an Irishman, an ex-Democrat, and an internationalist. There were two prominent lawyers in town, of which Hughes was indubitably the better known: an anti-trust, corporate and even Constitutional lawyer who practiced often before the U.S. Supreme Court who for eccentric reasons declined to base his firm in Washington, D. C., New York, Chicago or the Twin Cities. He was a close friend—perhaps the closest friend—of Harold Stassen, now a cabinet officer in the Eisenhower administration and regarded as the hope of Republican liberaldom.

Hughes was rather like a legal Warren Buffett (who decided to hang out in Omaha, making people come to him). General Motors in particular trekked to St. Cloud to get Hughes on retainer. He was particularly good in presentations in courtrooms—Courts of Appeals, the Supreme Court. He was thoughtful, reverent with a similarity to, of all people, Fulton Sheen with penetrating and deep-seated eyes. He lived apart from the city, in a mansion on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi. Stories abounded that he had private guards on duty at his estate because years earlier there had been an attempt at kidnapping.

The only legal rival to Hughes’ firm in town was a far distant second: run by Lawrence Hall, rich because his family also owned the city’s lumber mill, Matthew Hall & Sons Lumber, but who had a prosperous legislative (i.e. lobbying) practice. Hall, another graduate of St. John’s, was a proper German of indistinct political heritage. He had hired St. Cloud’s mayor, the former Korean war jet ace (age 29), the movie-star handsome bachelor, Democrat George Byers, elected mayor (a non-partisan election) at 28, who had stolen my girlfriend from the city’s Chamber of Commerce. Hall was the king-pin lobbyist for the Minnesota Distilled Spirits Institute and Byers was his number one man at the legislature in St. Paul: preparing for a career in the Democratic party. Relations between Hall and Hughes were definitely chilly: Hughes the establishmentarian and Hall the plebian but rich lobbyist.

Hughes was a daily Mass-goer (as I was not, at the time: only a Sunday-goer) and communicant at the St. Cloud Cathedral Mass every morning at 7; then he strolled a block and a half down St. Germain street, the main drag, to Enga’s a favorite coffee shop featuring obscenely delicious and fattening Danish pastries, the shop I used to visit while on my newspaper rounds of City Hall and County Building because Enga herself treated me free. A tall man (6 feet 4) of 47 with flecking grey hair and well-chiseled handsome face not unlike that of actor Walter Pidgeon, athletically trim, Hughes would avoid the pastries; intriguingly, I would notice him regularly studying me from across the room as I devoured them: was he disapproving? We were nodding acquaintances both there and, occasionally, at Sunday Mass. I always admired his suits: one of English worsted with subtle but intriguing tweed checks, another of radiantly deep blue with knife-edge creases, yet another of pinstripe grey, shoes of subtly polished black: the entire appearance low-key but radiating money.

He would usually sit by himself and read a law journal; when someone important came in, like the president of the City Council, the Fire commissioner, the Bishop, the visitor would come over to Hughes’ table rather deferentially. Whereupon Hughes would rip off his reading glasses, point to a vacant chair and allow the guest to pull it up. The guest was usually there., by his own choice, for two minutes. Possibly to get Hughes’ opinion of a Council action; possibly to ask him to head a blue-ribbon civic committee (usually rejected with diplomacy), possibly in the case of the Bishop to ask Hughes to head up a capital fund project for the diocese. If Enga’s were ever destroyed by fire with all customers having perished including the Bishop, the logical headline that St.Cloudites would expect to read would go: Fred J. Hughes Dies in Fire Along with Others. (We wouldn’t write it that way but would be thinking it, with Hughes’ death very near the lead.)

My appointment was for 3 p.m. at the city’s dressy Professional Building (home to the legal and medical practices) to which I had never been. His suite was like his clothes: low key but expensive. Original paintings on the wall, one a portrait of Sir Edward Coke the founder of British jurisprudence; another of Edmund Burke; a third a gorgeous water-color of our alma mater, St. John’s with its bell tower glowing at night. A fourth: a line of black-robed Benedictine monks with delicate chiaroscuro as they were marching into the abbey church for the Matins service. His inner office, when I was shown to it, was of wood-paneled, not oak or walnut, but a beautiful russet. He was not there so I was invited to wait. The wood was gorgeous.

“It’s teak,” said Hughes’ secretary. “Mr. Hughes likes teakwood as you can tell. Teak wood is grown in Malaysia.” Thereupon she left me alone. Walls and furnishings of teakwood. A statue of the Blessed Virgin stood on a teakwood side-table with a vigil light, unlighted, before it. Etching on the wall plus one long photograph of the General Motors board of directors, inscribed “to Fred with admiration” by the Chairman. The effect on me, still earning the by now familiar to you $67.50 a week, was unutterably impressive. But he still meant nothing to me.

Five minutes later, he walked in and came right to the point.

“I asked you to come for this reason: I would hope you would consider becoming the public relations director for the Minnesota Republican Party in St. Paul.”

Is this an offer you can make?

“It is.”

I accept.

“Do you know anything about public relations?”


“Good. That’s the first qualification. You’ll begin from scratch. That damn party has been relying on professional corporate types, consultants. I won’t tell you what to do but I would not be surprised if you terminated their contract quickly.”

I wouldn’t be surprised either. I would like to--.

“—inquire about the salary?”


“You’ll be satisfied. I’m not going to get into it now. Your boss, State Rep. John Hartle, a former Speaker of the House, will see that you are adequately paid. I am sure we can get together. And I will not victimize you because of your low salary now of $67.50.”

I am stunned that you know my humiliatingly low salary.

“Never mind. I want to go into everything I do prepared.”

The details?

“It will not start until July, after the legislature has adjourned. Hartle is the House minority leader and he will not be able to devote any time to the state chairmanship until then. Also, they have to know at the St. Cloud Times so they can find someone to replace you to whom they will pay your current salary. I understand Walter [Rogosheske] had you on the ropes emotionally.”

More than that. I’m afraid I started to weep. You must understand, I have never been subject to cross-examination much less lectured by a federal judge.

“I understand. Your response was salutary. You made a mistake and were heartfelt about it. Walter was once a part of this firm and I hated to lose him to the federal bench. He felt bad because he feels he possibly went overboard—but I told him it was good for you. Both of us admire your writings very much. I know a fair amount about you—know your grades at St, John’s, which were not impressive, by the way but you were good in extra-curriculars like editing the campus literary magazine. You know George Byers, the mayor?”

I do.

“He interests some people we know [who? Ambiguous]. He is DFL as you know and one likely to go all the way—Congress, Senate, possibly governor. What do you think of him?”

Don’t worry. He is a perfect candidate now but there are human imperfections.

“As we all do. But he has perfect qualifications for a political career: extraordinarily good-looking, conservative Democrat, a former highly decorated jet ace in Korea; wonderful personality. A bachelor at 29 which makes him very attractive to women. A lawyer. A Catholic. He has the potential to be a major factor in this district: beginning with Congress, then the Senate. People I know are concerned about him. And you say he has human imperfections. As do we all. What are they?”

They have to do with the major client of the law firm he’s associated with, your great and good friend and our fellow alum, Lawrence Hall. And Hall’s and his major client, the Minnesota Distilled Spirits Institute. If he cannot overcome the fondness for liquor, he will never make it beyond mayor. Unless he can overcome it, he is on a very dangerous track. Nothing major yet. But I must stop there.

“Fascinating. You have further information along that line?”

Yes but that is off-limits ethically.

“Fair enough. Of course, you could be biased because you used to date the girl he’s now going with from the Chamber of Commerce.”

Stunning research. Touche. Yes, but increasingly it is of less importance than originally.

“By which you mean?.”

“By which I mean there is disenchantment among young women in this town because of his fondness for another—a comely young widow.”

“ And you are going with his private secretary.”

Mr. Hughes, I see now how you have become so successful. Stunning research. Yes. We go to the movies at the Paramount theatre and have ice cream sodas to Dan Marsh’s Drug Store.

“She is the reason how your newspaper has been reporting some interesting scoops on city programs, evidently.

Absolutely not. I rather resent that. I get my news stories through hard work. But, enough, Counselor. Before we get further along, what else do you know?

“I know that you mis-led the local Democratic-Farmer-Labor people who inquired, before they recommended you to travel with Hubert, what your political affiliation might be. Very unprofessional of them, by the way. They had no business asking that. This local group is very amateurish.”

What did I tell them?

“You wanted to travel with Hubert very badly. You said your mother was a Democratic judge in Chicago.”

And was she?

“She was—and is—a Democratic judge of election earning $20 in a precinct every election day. We think it was clever of you to fool them so. A Democratic judge in Chicago!” He allowed himself a chuckle.

We? (Did that we include Rogosheske, the federal judge?)

“Did I say `we?’ Wrong.” A likely lie. . “But I was interested in the fantastic press you gave Hubert. You were very partial to him. Does it mean that you are a committed liberal, very sympathetic to him or just swayed by his magnetism?”

Not a liberal. Swayed by his magnetism.

“So much so that you accompanied him to the CIO convention in Duluth although you didn’t write anything but for which the DFL party paid your travel and lodging. Ethically challengeable. Were you an unofficial aide?”

I was glad he was wrong about something. Not the DFL but the CIO. No, it was not as an aide but I was storing up the experience for when, if ever, I would write about him again. My bills paid by the CIO is no different than a journalist asked to speak to a business group or labor group. I was off-duty at the time. I invite you to talk to my publisher about it since he knew about it.

“Forget it. You must forgive me cross-examination. If perchance, Harold Stassen would run against Hubert in 1960 for the Senate, or against him that year for president and you were still in an official party position, you would not be torn?”

Would not be torn.

“You understand that from this July on when you run the communications for the Republicans you will be expected to go after Hubert, in an effective way, of course?”

I do.

“You say that firmly. Is it because you will regard yourself as a hired gun, to do what you’re paid to do?”

No. I turned down an offer made by his people to work for him in the campaign and ultimately go with him to Washington. I am a Republican, probably more conservative than you are.”

“How conservative is that?”

I favored Senator Robert Taft for the nomination in 1952. Pretty conservative.

“Hmmm. You are indeed more conservative. Perhaps too much so. Did you support and vote for General Eisenhower that November?”

I did. I know that you favored Harold Stassen [then the rough equivalent of John McCain, not the frequent also-ran he later became. Stassen was in Eisenhower’s cabinet as Mutual Security Director, in charge of foreign aid.]

Would you call yourself an Eisenhower Republican?


A Stassen Republican?

I support one presidential candidate—and president—at a time.

“I worked very hard for Harold for many years and am very close to him today. Does that bother you?”

Not at all.

“He is more progressive than Eisenhower and far more so than Taft. I would think you would be bothered. Are you less ideological than pragmatic?”

Not any more than Harold Stassen was himself when he joined with Taft in the convention of 1948 along with Colonel McCormick to try to stop Dewey; and joined with Taft again in the convention of `52 to try to stop Eisenhower.

“Good answer. Very good answer. I was involved in those negotiations.”

I know. [I didn’t but I thought I’d give him some of his own one-upmanship medicine.]

“You know that? Impressive because my work was never written up which is the way I wanted it. Well, good. [Pause]. Well, then, we have an understanding. Harold knows of your coming aboard, by the way. One further thing. What do you think of our vice president, Richard Nixon?”

I’ll tell you. When he sobbed on Eisenhower’s shoulder after he passed the General’s test on the Checkers fund, I thought it was—well, unmanly.

“Perfect answer. Then you would not be surprised if in 1956 there would be an attempt to get rid of Mr. Nixon as vice president.”

Not in the slightest.

“Very good. You are going to be a great help to the Republican party. John Hartle would like to talk with you. He’ll be your boss. I will place the call to him in St. Paul now. But you won’t start until July.”

I can count on it?

“You have my word. And I expect that you and I will be in the closest contact during your work there. I will give you my phone numbers. Your relationship with me will be private, even confidential.”

The next weekend I went to St. Paul to meet Hartle.

When I came back to St. Cloud to go to work, Monday morning, my editor told me there was a disappearance of a bar-room waitress from a saloon known as the “V Bar” in neighboring Sauk Rapids, in a shanty-town, neon jungle area. She had a public quarrel with her boss, who was acting as bartender and took off her ring that was a gift from him, slammed it on the bar, got in her heavy coat (it was winter) and stalked off, as patrons watched. He then hung up his bartender’s towel and followed her. He returned some hours later. She was never seen again. Some days later her parents reported that she hadn’t gone home. The Benton county sheriff’s office (not Stearns county, an adjoining county) was investigating.

“This could well be your first murder, who knows?” the editor said. “Maybe this’ll get you some attention in the Twin Cities and you’ll get a job there. I almost don’t want to assign it to you because I want you around.”

I thought: Already lined one up, thanks, but looking into it will be fun.


Next time: A series of stories that turn up no leads but an angry bar owner.

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