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Call Me TomTHE LIFE OF Thomas F. Eagleton
By James N. Giglio
UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESSCopyright © 2011 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGrowing Up in St. Louis
Thomas Francis Eagleton was born on September 4, 1929, in St. Louis, Missouri, on a warm, sunny day in the glow of Hoover prosperity. Even though the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported a slight drop in stock prices on that day, industrial, railroad, and utility stocks remained at near-record highs. Albeit modestly, St. Louis shared in the prosperity of the time. Located about ten miles south of the convergence of the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers along the crescent bend of the former, the city had long ago turned its back on the Mississippi. While barges and other vessels continued to carry commerce down the river, railroads and trucks had surpassed water transportation. The Romanesque Union Station in the downtown area housed the largest railroad terminal in the nation. Five railroad bridges spanned the river to points eastward.
In 1929 St. Louis ranked seventh in the nation in manufacturing and remained the state's leading manufacturing center. The St. Louis area provided 2.26 percent of the nation's manufacturing. Known for its industrial diversity, the river city produced food products, notably meat and bakery goods; clothing, especially for women; boots and shoes, mainly by the Brown and the International Shoe companies; chemicals and drugs; iron; steel; zinc; and aluminum products. The St. Louis Car Company continued to produce streetcars. Railroad yards and shops existed throughout the city, while the American Car and Foundry met the demand for new railroad cars. St. Louis also remained the world's largest raw fur market and a world leader in the production of stoves and ranges, sugar-mill machinery, brick, and terra cotta. Highlighting that diversity, twenty-nine of the top second-tier industries employed as many workers as the top eight. Prohibition, in part, prevented the city from keeping pace with Chicago, its Midwest competitor; Anheuser-Busch, the nation's largest brewery, once employing some seventy-five hundred local workers, was especially hard hit, as were other local breweries that serviced the city's two thousand saloons.
Diversity also characterized the city's population of 821,000, ranked seventh in the nation. The north side, mostly Democratic in politics, contained a sizable segment of working-class Irish Catholics, while South St. Louis housed a large concentration of Germans, mostly Republicans, who lived in virtually identical two-storied frame and brick houses. Czech, Bohemian, Lebanese, and Hispanic groups shared the south side area, with a large concentration of Italians in the southwest sector in a locale called the Hill, eventually known for its well-groomed bungalows, neighborhood restaurants, and major leaguers Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees and Joe Garagiola of the Cardinals. St. Louis also contained a sizable black population, migrating from the South during the World War. They numbered 11.5 percent of the city's population, about 2 percent more than the foreign born. Many of them lived in tenements immediately beyond the downtown business district and near the riverfront. In terms of deplorable housing and low wages, their plight epitomized the inequality that characterized the Republican era of the 1920s—and decades afterward. Segregation prevailed at Sportsman's Park, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals, until 1944, in the public school system until the 1950s, and at most department store lunch counters and restaurants until the 1960s. Despite its imperfections, St. Louis would become Tom's "town." Later in life he affectionately suggested that St. Louis was akin to a "raucous" Des Moines.
One of the many city attorneys in 1929 was Mark Eagleton, Tom's father. Much more is known about Mark than Tom's mother, Zitta. We do know that her father, William Swanson, was born in Missouri and was of Swedish and Irish ancestry. William's wife, Jessie, came from Illinois of French and Austrian heritage. Zitta's sister, Hazel, who was two years older, eventually played an important role in Tom's life. Their father labored as a railroad-yard master. Before her marriage to Mark during the early 1920s, Zitta worked for a real estate company as a stenographer. Only one photograph of her, taken in 1943, has survived. It depicts a forty-three year old, short and thin in stature and matronly in appearance. Tom later described his mother as "soft-spoken" and "self-sacrificing." "All she wanted for herself," he said, were the "bare necessities of life." Her wish for her two sons was that one become a doctor and the other a lawyer. In "Tom's Last Words," issued posthumously in 2007, he called her a "saint." Zitta died in 1948 on her birthday at the age of forty-nine of a cerebral hemorrhage. Writing to his daughter Christy nearly fifty years later, Eagleton remembered his mother as "very gentle" and "very quiet. A great listener." "I was my mother's 'favorite,'" he continued. His older brother, Mark Jr., "was my father's 'favorite.'" "Generally speaking, I was well-behaved. Generally speaking Mark raised constant hell. (My father thought it showed 'character' when Mark raised hell.)."
Mark David Eagleton, the paterfamilias, most influenced Tom's life. Fortunately, we know more about his background. Although of Irish ancestry, the surname first appeared in Rutland, England—rather than in Ireland—as early as 1250 either as Eagleton, Egleston, or Eglinton. Family members in Dublin, Ireland, contend that there was an Eagleton migration to Ireland sometime in the early nineteenth century. They located in parish records a William Eagleton at Carronurlare in Galway in 1825 and other family members in 1850 in nearby areas of western Ireland who owned land ranging from fifteen to forty-nine acres. They believed that one of them, Walter Egleton (or possibly his brother John), was Mark Eagleton's grandfather. One of Walter's sons, Thomas, married Mary Hennelly of Glencorrib in an arranged match. As late as the 1970s Hennelly still lived in the thatched cottage where Mary was born.
It was Tom's namesake, Thomas, and his wife, Mary, who emigrated to Mexico, Missouri, in 1880. At the time, according to census records, he was twenty-one years old, two years older than Mary. After an unsuccessful stint at farming, they moved to North St. Louis in the Irish ghetto of Kerry Patch. Thomas worked as a day laborer and then foreman for the city street department, and Mary became the proprietor of a grocery store. They had two children, Mark, born in 1894, and Winifred, in 1893. As late as 1910 the family still rented a home; three years later Mary died at the age of fifty-one of diabetes. The family was now in crisis, causing Mark to drop out of high school. He clerked for the Terminal Railroad Company in St. Louis and eventually enrolled in the night law school of St. Louis University, where he received a law degree and was admitted to the bar in 1916. What caused him to enlist in the Marine Corps in May 1918 is unknown. He served in France as a private with the Eleventh Regiment from September 1918 until June 1919, without seeing combat, along with Gene Tunney, with whom he befriended while in training at Paris, South Carolina. Afterward, Eagleton played an early role in launching Tunney's boxing career that led to his winning the heavyweight title by defeating Jack Dempsey in 1926. Years later Senator Tom Eagleton met Tunney, who shared stories of his military association with Mark. The latter also apparently did legal work for the boxer in the 1920s. When Tunney heard of Mark's death in 1970, he reportedly cried.
The 1920 federal census listed Mark and Winifred as single and as living on Etzel Avenue, with Mark practicing law and his sister employed as a stenographer. That same year Winifred (or Winnie as she was affectionately called) booked passage to Ireland for a homeland visit. Aboard ship out of New York City she met Harold West of Sheffield, England, on the tag end of an around-the-world voyage while promoting a chemical firm he represented. They fell in love and were married on December 17, 1924, the same year of Mark and Zitta's marriage. The following year Winifred gave birth to her first child, Loretta. By 1932 she and her husband visited the Eagletons, the first of several visits. Winifred's husband was knighted in 1952 for his work as managing director of a chemical firm, and she became Lady Winifred. Little else is known about Mark and Winifred during those early years aside from the tragic loss of their sixty-nine-year-old father, Tom, who had his head crushed in an industrial accident in June 1929, while working for the Laclede Gas Company. One year after the death of his father, Mark, Zitta, and their two sons moved to 4608 Tower Grove Place in South St. Louis, which Mark Jr. and Tom called home until they married in 1951 and 1956, respectively.
The Tower Grove neighborhood, bounded by Arsenal Street, Grand Boulevard, Kingshighway Boulevard, and Magnolia Avenue adjacent to the exit on Interstate 44, includes the Missouri Botanical Garden and Tower Grove Park, the city's second-largest park at some 285 acres. It features exotic gazebos and pagodas among its thousands of trees. Ornamental gateways with wrought-iron work and stone pylons grace all of the park's entrances. The Eagleton home existed just a few short blocks from the park. Like the other houses in the neighborhood, it was made of brick. Built in 1929 next to a corner lot that Eagleton converted into a tennis court, the house by 1949 had the first residential air-conditioning system in St. Louis and also a small summerhouse and a four-room dwelling in the backyard equipped to house a butler and maid. From 1956 through 1959, Mark permitted a Hungarian family, escaping from the failed revolution against Soviet control in 1956, to live in the latter building for three or four years.
Soon after the family moved into their new home, the stock market crash struck in October, and the country eventually faced the worst depression in its history. St. Louis was especially hard hit. By 1932 unemployment would exceed 30 percent compared to the national average of 24.9 percent. Black workers especially suffered, as some 60 percent of them lost their jobs, many to whites. Thousands of the unemployed lived in a huge, makeshift "Hooverville" just west of the Mississippi River as they sought to survive on the inadequate assistance of the municipal government, private organizations, and the churches. Because of the failure of the Hoover administration to address the problem, voters nationwide overwhelmingly elected Franklin Roosevelt in the presidential election of 1932.
The Democratic leader immediately began the New Deal, a bold program of economic recovery, financial reform, and work relief that included federal agencies such as the Civil Works Administration, the Public Works Administration, and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which particularly benefited St. Louis residents. By 1934 the economy was on the upswing and continued to improve the following year when Roosevelt moved into what historians have called the Second New Deal. This included social welfare programs such as Social Security and the Works Progress Administration—a work-relief commitment that provided jobs for some two million Americans annually. The repeal of Prohibition by constitutional amendment shortly after the election of FDR had also aided the St. Louis economy—as well as the spirit of its people—by once again producing beer. Anheuser-Busch would increase its sales of Budweiser from six hundred thousand barrels in 1933 to more than one million per year from 1934 to 1936, making it once again the industry's largest producer.
Like many other professionals, Mark Eagleton had overinvested in the stock market and had momentarily suffered a major reversal following the stock market crash. For a while the family's financial situation was tight. Yet he remained a loyal Republican throughout the late 1920s and the 1930s even though Irish Catholics generally voted for Al Smith, the Irish Catholic Democratic nominee in 1928, and Roosevelt in the 1930s. Perhaps this reflected an independent streak that in part was tied to his professional status at the time. By the early 1930s, however, he was doing much better economically than his middle-class neighbors.
Tom expressed fond memories of his childhood in that neighborhood. He remembered the friendships he made playing baseball in Tower Grove Park and attending double features at the Ritz or Shenandoah movie theaters on Grand Avenue. Afterward, his friends—including Earle Harbison, eventually president of Monsanto Corporation—ended up at White Castle for hamburgers: "Six for quarter with a Sunday coupon from the Post or the Globe." "Our worst sin," he remembered, "was puffing precisely 1/2 pack of cigarettes" on the way to the theater and a half pack home: "Old man Eagleton smelled me eight blocks away. One night he 'instructed' me to remain in the backyard until my clothes and breath 'aired out.'" Tom also fondly recalled Mike Oldani's grocery store, "where the word fresh meat was just that and the word frozen hadn't been invented. If you desired, you could shoot craps in the basement." Then there was Herman Phegley's filling station, "where free air for bicycle tires was always available with a smile," and Holy Innocents Parish, infrequently attended by the Eagleton family, where Father Leo McAtee "spent fifteen minutes on why the parish was broke and two minutes on God." All in all, it was a "good, rational, young life."
During these years Tom's father had become a titan in the legal profession. He specialized in handling damage-suit cases for workers against corporate interests, especially the railroads. As was once said of one of Roosevelt's New Deal advisers, the underdog had him on a leash. Consequently, Eagleton was much in demand. Henry "Buz" Fredericks, Tom Eagleton's future associate in the circuit attorney's office, remembered from personal experience that "an Irish family's claim to success was that they had Mark Eagleton trying their case." Eagleton took this very seriously. He once told junior associate Albert Stephan Jr. that "you've got to remember that when I walk into that courtroom, I am the only hope that poor son of a bitch has!" In 1924, according to one observer, Eagleton tried and won five jury cases in one week. Over a six-year period he lost only one case, which he had reversed and settled out of court. Judge John Casey recalled that you could "hear him a block away. They used to say that all the other court rooms on the same floor had to recess when Eagleton was arguing before a jury." A tall, burly man, he projected a "command presence," which one attorney attributed to his Marine Corps training.
Tom Eagleton best expressed the keys to his father's success He had unusual skills in the three major aspects of a jury trial: First, voir dire, which involved the selection of jurors. "He instantly memorized [their] names, neighborhoods, and occupations ... and he chatted with each ... on a personal, 'friend-to-friend' basis." Second, in cross-examination, "he was the best of his time. He would slowly ... lead an adverse witness further and further 'out on the limb' and then cut him off with a guillotine drop that left the witness not only decapitated but disemboweled." Finally, in the closing argument, "he was greater than John Barrymore and Frederick March rolled into one. He would start out very softly and work himself into a reverberating crescendo that had rhythm, cadence, and varying volume. It was like a wonderful symphony coming to a thunderous close."
More than this, Mark Eagleton had five other attributes: "1. He felt to his inner soul the correctness of his cause. 2. He could relate each of his plaintiffs to the real, day-to-day lives of the members of the jury. 3. He had the mental skills and courtroom presence to dramatize an incident so that it was vibrantly alive in each juror's mind. 4. He was a ferocious competitor. He never enjoyed trying a case against a nit-wit defense counsel. He only enjoyed trying a case against the very beSt. 5. He was a prodigious worker and meticulous in the preparation of a case." "As I was growing up," Tom remembered, "we had lunch every Sunday at 12:00 sharp. At 1:00, he went to his office and didn't return until late at night. He was 'ready' in every sense of the word.... He knew as much orthopedic medicine as a specialist in that field[,] and he could translate medical terms into realistic terms, including the description of 'pain and suffering' which every juror could comprehend and relate to." These observations first came from Tom's high school days when he visited the courtroom to hear his father's closing arguments along with many lawyers who wanted to hear a "master" at work.
Excerpted from Call Me Tom by James N. Giglio Copyright © 2011 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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