Sunday, November 05, 2006

Remembering Wayne Morse, the Madison Central High School alumnus who served four terms in the United States Senate

Tuesday is election day, but Wednesday is the day many of us have been looking forward to for weeks. Regardless of the outcomes, we'll have something to cheer about on Wednesday: those annoying telephone calls interrupting our dinners and clogging our voice mail with messages about how we should vote will cease, as will those obnoxious political ads that have been polluting the airwaves.

This evening, I've unplugged my telephone (the television is rarely on these days) so I can write in peace and quiet about some Madison Central High School alumni who went into politics. It seemed a seasonally appropriate subject.

Actually, I'm going to focus my attention on just one alumnus. Although Madison Central High School alumni have served as elected officials in state and local government (including at least two Madison mayors), and one served as Secretary of the Interior under President Harry S. Truman, only one was elected to the United States Senate: Wayne Lyman Morse (Class of 1919), who served as a U.S. Senator from Oregon from 1944 to 1969. Six months ago, Madison Guy (whoever he is), wrote about Morse (photo on left), and referred to him as "one of my favorite alums." Now it's my turn.

Born in rural Dane County, near Verona, on October 20, 1900, Morse graduated from Madison High School (Central's name prior to the opening of Madison East High School) in 1919. According to biographic material researched and written by David Cecil for a 2001 exhibit at the University of Oregon about Morse's contributions to labor relations, Morse commuted to Madison High School by horseback, riding a round-trip circuit of 22 miles every day.

Morse's long daily commute did not prevent him from becoming very active in high school activities, but he wasn't a student council president. He was president of the debate club and served on the Tychoberahn board. He was also a member of the dramatic club. Below is a scan of page 112 of the 1919 Tychoberah, featuring a photo of the dramatic club. Wayne Morse is in the second row on the far right.



Double click on the above image to enlarge it in your browser window.

According to Cecil, it was at Madison High School that Morse "discovered two interests that remained with him throughout his life."

In Madison, he was able to attend schools that prepared him for the rigors of the University of Wisconsin, one of the more prestigious colleges in the early twentieth century, which Morse attended from 1919 to 1924. It was at one of these Madison schools, Madison Central High, where he discovered two interests that remained with him throughout his life. One was a love for public speaking and debate that propelled him to a master's degree in speech and a life in politics. The other was his love for Mildred Martha Downie, “Midge” to those who knew her, who was his constant companion at Wisconsin and, after 1924, his wife for the rest of his days.
Mildred Downie (Class of 1919) is also in the dramatics club photo. She's third from the left in the front row.

Like Morse, Downie was also on the Tychoberahn board. When you look at the Tychoberahn pages with their senior class photos and lists of activities, you may decide they were fortunate to have some control over the page layout of the yearbook. Both Morse and Downie participated in so many activities, it was necessary to use a smaller than usual font to squeeze them all in such a limited amount of space.

While they were students at the University of Wisconsin Morse was a member of the varsity debate team and the Student Senate and Downie was class vice-president. Both Morse and Downie graduated from the UW in 1923.

Morse and Downie continued to stay involved with the University of Wisconsin long after they graduated. In the Wisconsin alumnus Volume 51, Number 6 (March 1950), editor Dwight A. Johnson noted that, "Whenever Wayne Morse stops in Madison -- even if it's just between trains -- he is sure to do two things: Drop over to Sterling Hall and visit with his favorite professors, Selig Perlman and Edwin E. Witte of the economics department, and go uptown to see his friend and classmate, Atty. Ralph Axley."

Although Wayne Morse was originally elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican, according to the Senate Historical Office, "During the 1952 presidential campaign, Morse broke ranks with Republican leaders over the party's platform and Dwight Eisenhower's choice of Richard Nixon as his running mate. Claiming the Republican Party had left him, Morse announced his switch to Independent status."

In 1953, Morse's debate skills must have been useful as he set a filibuster record:
"When he concluded after 22 hours and 26 minutes, he had broken the 18-hour record set in 1908 by his mentor, Robert La Follette."

In 1955, Morse became a Democrat, a move that returned the Democrats to majority status in the U.S. Senate.

Although he'd graduated decades earlier, Wayne Morse was an alumnus whose name became well-known to students at Madison Central High School during the 1960s because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1964, Morse and Ernest Gruening of Alaska were the only two U.S. Senators to vote against the Tonkin Gulf resolution.

In 1968, Morse lost his bid for re-election to the Senate to Republican Robert Packwood, who later resigned from the Senate in 1995, after the Senate Ethics Committee
unanimously recommended expelling him because of sexual and official misconduct.

After an unsuccessful campaign for the United States Senate in 1972. Morse ran again in 1974. He was actively engaged in campaigning when he died July 22, 1974, in Portland, Oregon. Thus far, I've been unable to locate an obituary for Mildred Downie Morse. However, according to her grave marker, she lived to be 93 years old, dying on December 15, 1994.

There are several memorials to Wayne Morse and Mildred Downie in Oregon, including the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and theWayne Morse Ranch Historical Park, also in Eugene.

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