By STEVEN MURREY
Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, marks the 80th anniversary of the “greatest day in Elwood history” – the day in which Elwood’s most famous son, Lewis Wendell Willkie accepted the 1940 GOP nomination for the presidency in front of an estimated crowd of 250,000.
Wendell Willkie was born to Herman and Henrietta Willkie on Feb. 18, 1892, in a house that still stands at the corner of South A and 19th streets in Elwood. His parents – two accomplished lawyers – came to Elwood in 1888 from Largo, Ind., when Herman accepted the position of superintendent of Elwood Public Schools. His mother, the first woman admitted to the bar in Madison County, is believed to be one of the first women admitted to the bar in Indiana.
Willkie spent his boyhood in Elwood, attending school in an eight-room brick building. Except for a brief period during rebuilding, he spent all of his days through high school in this building. He spent one summer at Culver Military Academy because his father thought he developed a “slight stoop” that needed correcting.
After graduation in 1910, Willkie attended Indiana University, where like his parents, he studied law. He returned to Elwood in 1916 to practice law with his father. In 1917, news broke of America’s entrance into World War I. Willkie enlisted as a private that day.
Before his enlistment, Willkie went by his first name, Lewis. A clerical error recorded his name as Wendell Lewis Willkie. He went with it – he never liked the name Lewis anyway.
On Aug. 14, 1917, Willkie deployed to Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, Ky. as a first lieutenant. From there he traveled to Fort Still, Okla. and then to Camp DeSouge in Martignas-sur-Jalle, France. In January of 1918, he married Edith Wilk, a librarian at the Elwood Library.
Honorably discharged in February of 1919, Willkie returned to Elwood to re-establish his law practice, a reportedly discouraging task. Before the year’s end, he accepted a position with Firestone Tire and Rubber. He and his family moved to Akron, Ohio.
Willkie developed a fascination with corporation law, working as many as 15 to 18 hours a day. In 1921, he went to work for Mather and Nesbitt, a law firm representing large railroads, industrial, banking, and utility companies in northeastern Ohio before becoming a junior partner and director of the Ohio State Bank in Akron.
In the early 1930s, the Ohio Edison Co., for which he was an attorney, was absorbed by the Commonwealth and Southern Corporation. By the age of 41, he was the head of one of the country’s largest organizations, with assets of more than a billion dollars.
According to an article published in the Elwood Call-Leader in 1952, columnists began mentioning Willkie’s name as a possible presidential candidate.
“If he were nominated, he would be a strong candidate and make a great president,” High S. Johnson said.
When Willkie heard this, he retorted: “If the government keeps taking my business away at its recent rate, I’ll soon be out of work and looking for a job. Johnson’s offer is the best I’ve had.”
Following the sixth ballot during the nomination process, Willkie gained the lead and was accepted as the GOP nominee for president.
“The announcement about the nomination came at 1:40 a.m., and in Elwood, people left their homes and gathered on downtown streets,” the previously cited Call-Leader article reads. “Horns blew and bells rang. Wendell Willkie, a man born and reared in Elwood, had been selected as a candidate for the presidency.”
Willkie chose Elwood as the site of his acceptance speech, and on Aug. 17, more than 250,000 lined the city’s streets and gathered at Callaway Park to watch as the Republican nominee paraded to the park for his speech. The speech, broadcast on the nation’s leading radio networks, outlined his platform for the 1940 presidential campaign.
Willkie’s nomination brought about the biggest day in the history of the city. Dietzen’s Bakery made 400,000 buns for the occasion and the Elwood Coca Cola Bottling Works stocked up with 192,000 bottles of Coke. More than 500 people were treated for prostrations, cuts from broken bottles, blisters, and heart ailments, according to the Aug. 19 edition of The Call-Leader. One hundred out-of-town doctors assisted those treated in a first aid tent at Callaway Park and those hospitalized at Mercy Hospital.
“The crowd came by plane, train, automobile and hitchhiker’s thumb,” the Tipton Tribune reported. The Indy Star reported that Willkie’s acceptance drew double the crowd of President Roosevelt’s second nomination. As Willkie entered Callaway Park, the band played “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
Ultimately, Willkie’s bid for president proved unsuccessful. Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term as president, with about 55% of the popular vote and a wide margin in the electoral college. His defeat did not discourage his involvement in politics, however, and in 1942 he served as a personal representative of Roosevelt in visiting Allied nations to discuss views of the Second World War
A second bid for the presidency also proved unsuccessful, and years of neglect to his diet and health and heavy drinking and smoking are believed to have contributed to his sudden death in October of 1944.
(Author’s Note: Information and photos for this article were obtained from newspaper archives, compiled by Janis Thornton and the Elwood Chamber of Commerce.)