Saturday, March 14, 2015

Gale McGee's 100th birthday

Saint Patrick’s Day 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of Wyoming’s greatest political leaders, Gale W. McGee.

In the early-1980s, I practiced law in Cheyenne. One afternoon, my secretary interrupted a lengthy deposition. “There’s a man who says he’s ‘Ambassador McGee’ on the phone. He said he’d call back, but I thought you’d want to speak with him.” Everyone in the room needed a break. I was delighted to hear from someone I’d admired for so long. “What can I do for you Senator,” I asked. 

“I need a lawyer.”

McGee, then Ambassador to the Organization of American States, explained there was a new county clerk in his old hometown. For almost forty years he’d proudly displayed an Albany County-5 Wyoming license plate. After all these years, the clerk refused to reissue it because McGee lived in Maryland. He wanted to know if I could help.

A couple of phone calls later and his license plate was in the mail. I thought, “How soon they’re forgotten.” Those who give much of their lives to public service are like shooting stars. They move brightly across Wyoming’s skies for a brief period. When they burn out, they’re gone from our hearts and minds. Browse the history section of your library. You’ll find few biographies of important Wyoming public servants. That’s one reason I’m in the midst of writing McGee’s biography and why the biographies of others need to be undertaken.

After World War II, college enrollment burst the seams of every university. McGee was recruited to teach history at the University of Wyoming in 1946. Dr. McGee had completed his PhD at the University of Chicago. Having taught previously at Iowa State, Nebraska Wesleyan, and Notre Dame, he was atop the list of many schools. When UW offered him a professorship, a colleague warned him against coming to Laramie.

“There’s not a legitimate supper club within a hundred miles,” he said. “There’s not a legitimate theater within a hundred-fifty miles. All the local folks do is catch trout and shoot deer.” McGee was sold. When he drove into the beautiful Laramie Valley that summer, his first words, according to Wyoming historian “Doc” TA Larson, who became his closest friend, was “Let’s go fishing.”

He remained an outdoorsman and a “teacher” his entire life. Elected to the US Senate in 1958, Gale McGee was one of the most celebrated orators in the history of the world’s greatest deliberative body. During three senate terms, he worked with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. McGee was Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) under Presidents Carter and Reagan.

He was a part of what many historians believe to be the golden era of senate accomplishments.

He and his colleagues enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare and Medicaid, created the Peace Corps, and put critical consumer and environmental protection laws on the books. This group played their role in amending the US Constitution to expand the vote to eighteen year olds and passed laws to protect women from employment-based discrimination. They held a president accountable for excesses committed under the epithet “Watergate.”

On his birthday in 1961, Senator McGee and his parents were invited to meet with America’s “Irishman-in-Chief.” Saint Patrick’s Day wasn’t only Senator McGee’s, but also his father Garton’s birthday. JFK said, “You have a special claim to the watchfulness of the great saint of Erin, and I hope he obtains for you many more years of health and happiness.” The Irish Saint did just that.

In 1970, Gale McGee became the last Democrat elected to the Senate from Wyoming. Voters thought he’d changed. So, in 1976 he lost. Truthfully, it was the voters who’d changed, becoming more interested in fighting the federal government than being part of a larger world.

Regardless, Gale McGee served Wyoming well. He earned the right to be remembered. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, Irish eyes are smiling.

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