By Linda Emley
On Thursday, May 25, 1972 the people of Richmond gathered at the Kirkpatrick Auditorium and watched the class of 1972 receive diplomas. I was there in 1972, but I wish I could go back in time and ask for a “do over”.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have listened to the man addressing the senior class. Later that year, on Nov. 7, he was elected to the 93rd Congress and became our Congressman, Jerry Litton.
It’s still hard to believe that Jerry’s career would end in four short years. On Aug. 3, 1976, we lost Jerry Litton while he was traveling down a road that could have led to the White House.
The Richmond News headline on Aug. 4 read, “Death Is Winner in Post Election Tragedy.” Howard Hill wrote an article about Litton and news reporter Lloyd Brune visited the plane crash site in Chillicothe.
Lloyd’s article said, “Litton’s Mourners Trying to Find Answer to Why?” Like many others, I will never forget the day when he died on his way to a victory party in Kansas City.
Jerry had just won Missouri’s state Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. His wife, Sharon, and their children, Linda and Scott, the pilot of the plane, Paul Rupp, and Rupp’s son Paul were also killed in the crash.
It was a tragic event in our history because we all believed in Jerry. Jimmy Carter, who later became President, said that he thought Jerry Litton would be president someday. There were even green bumper stickers around Missouri that said, “LITTON for President.”
I’ve always admired Jerry Litton, but after researching his story I realized he was much bigger than I could ever imagine. I asked several people about Jerry and was told to contact Ed Turner. A short time later, I was on a conference call with Ed and Bonnie Mitchell.
Ed was Jerry’s fraternity brother at MU and later became his campaign manager and chief of staff. Bonnie was Jerry’s personal assistant and author of his biography. They are both members of the Litton Foundation and it was an honor to hear them share some of their memories of Jerry.
I was amazed to hear about all the wonderful projects that have been created in his memory. Part of his farm is now a golf course, a $42-million hospital, a family center with a movie theater and 25 lanes of bowling, the $4.5-million Litton Agricultural Education Building and the $4-million Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium that is used by the local high school. Jerry’s house and one barn is still privately used today.
If you would like to learn more about Jerry Litton, you can also visit the Jerry Litton Visitor’s Center at Smithville Lake. Here you will find a collection of items that reflect his life-long passion for agriculture.
Jerry attended high school in Chillicothe. He was a newscaster for a local radio station and president of the Missouri chapter of FFA. He later was elected National Secretary of FFA , which led to speaking engagements in many states.
Jerry’s early days of FFA speeches prepared him for his future as a political speaker. Ed Turner told me that Jerry was very popular and got many requests for speaking engagements. In 1975, he said he got 200 requests in one month. This made me appreciate his 1972 RHS commencement speech even more.
Jerry graduated from the University of Missouri in January of 1961 with a degree in agriculture journalism. While at MU, Jerry was very active in politics. He was vice president of the student body, was named to the Mystical Seven for scholastic achievement and leadership, was Missouri chairman of students at MU for Kennedy and Johnson and national co-chairman of Youth for Kennedy. Jerry was president of the Young Democrats at MU, national chairman of “Youth for Symington” and served four years on the congressional campaign committee of Congressman W.R. Hull. He was also a newscaster for a Columbia radio station, a newspaper reporter and farm editor.
While in college, he married his wife Sharon. After graduation,they moved to Chillicothe, where Jerry and his father, Charley, started raising Charolais cattle. Litton’s Charolais were sold to buyers in many different countries around the world.
I was talking to one of my Richmond FFA friends and he said they made several school trips to the Litton Farm during the early 1970s. If Jerry was around, he would always meet with them and answer any questions they might have. I also heard that Jerry had a program where he would give a FFA student a steer to raise. After it was sold, they could then pay back the Littons’ original cost.
Jerry’s political life began in 1972 when he was elected by Missouri’s 6th District to be its Congressman. Jerry created “The Congressional Club,” which sponsored a monthly television program, “Dialogue with Litton”. Jerry hosted the show in Kansas City and it was viewed statewide. He had a variety of guest speakers, some of whom were Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, Vice-president Gerald Ford, Rep. Shirley Chisholm and House majority leader Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neal, who claimed that in his 22 years in Congress he had never been more impressed by a freshman congressman than by Jerry Litton.
While looking at the 1976 Richmond News, I ran across several ads for “Dialogue with Jerry Litton. The program that brings government to the people. Sunday, July 25, at 6:30 p.m. KBMA-TV 41, Kansas City. Congressman Litton’s guest, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr.”
I also found an ad where Jimmy Carter was his guest on July 11. I watched some clips from “Dialogue with Litton” and was surprised to see that many of the people’s concerns are the same things we worry about today. Topics like unemployment, the economy and immigration. I enjoyed seeing Jerry Litton’s easy going spirit and his great sense of humor as he answered questions from the crowd.
I heard that one lady from New York asked Jerry why we needed farmers because they got all their food from a grocery store. I haven’t been able to find anyone that can prove this story, but I did find another one with New York connections.
Jerry invited Elinor Guggenheimer to visit Missouri’s 6th district. She was a civic leader, author, plilantropist and commissioner of consumer affairs in New York City. “Ellie” toured the farm and got a taste of the real world, Missouri style. She even attended a small country chruch on Sunday morning while here visiting. I’m sure she had a new-found apprecitaion of our world after she returned to New York City.
Jerry Litton never lived in Ray County, but he left his fingerprints on many local projects. He also left part of his heart and soul with the many people who knew him over the years. Many FFA boys grew up to be good men because they had a man like Jerry Litton as a role model.
I’m planing a trip to Chillicothe to visit with my new friends Ed and Bonnie from the Litton Foundation. While there, I’m going to pick up some DVD copies of “Dialogue with Litton,” which will be available for all to enjoy at the Ray County Museum. We are also working on a display of Litton items for the museum, so please let us know if you have anything you would like to add to our collection.
Many years ago, I attended a funeral for a young man and the preacher said, “We are not here because he died, we are here because he lived.” That is how I feel about Jerry Litton. We will always remember his tragic death, but we will also remember Jerry Littonthe man because he lived and was a part of our lives for 39 years.
The Richmond News on July 28, 1976 had a Jerry Litton ad. It said, “One reason government isn’t solving our problems is because it doesn’t understand what the problems are. For the kind of government you want instead of the kind you’ve got, elect Jerry Litton for U.S. Senate.”
It would be good if we had a few more people like Jerry Litton taking care of our country today. There will always be only one Jerry Litton, but we can all remember what he stood for and try to carry on his hopes and dreams for the future of America.
You can contact Linda at email@example.com or see her during business hours at Ray County Museum.