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The Watkins Wonder
Eugene Joseph McCarthy was born in the small town of Watkins, Minnesota, on 29 March 1916. Although he was half German by blood, McCarthy always presented himself as an Irishman, relishing his frequent trips to Ireland and long conversations about Irish literature over a glass of whisky. His mother's parents were in fact German Catholics, while his father's family was Irish. His paternal grandparents, Michael McCarthy and Mary Harbinson, hailed from County Cork and County Antrim respectively; they had met in Quebec and moved to Minnesota in the 1870s. There was said to be much of the elder Michael McCarthy in his grandson. "He was always real interested in politics, and in reading the newspapers and finding out what was going on," recalled Eugene's elder sister Mildred. Eugene noted that his grandfather was said to have been "especially learned about and agitated by the British treatment of the Irish over the centuries." Eugene's father, also named Michael, was born in 1875, one of eleven children. Eugene's mother, Anna Baden, was the daughter of a Bavarian miller and blacksmith who had moved to Minnesota during the great surge of German Catholic immigration after the revolutions of 1848.
Eugene was Anna's third child. He had two older sisters, Mildred and Marian, and when he was two his mother gave birth to another son, Austin. Anna was forty when Eugene was born, and took responsibility for the four McCarthy children, since their father, a cattle buyer, was often away for months at a time. "Mother was the one who really raised us," explained her second son, Austin. She rarely raised her voice to her family, and was devoutly religious, walking every day to Mass whatever the weather and also leading the children in prayers at home. Eugene's mother, like her elder son, rarely showed anger or open emotion. He later wrote a poem entitled "Mother," celebrating her qualities "of tolerance, of strength, of gentleness / Of quiet voice, certainty, security." Not only did Eugene inherit Anna's reserve and patience, he also absorbed her religious passion. His mother dearly hoped that he would become a priest, and his wife, Abigail, later wrote that Anna had viewed the appearance of a girlfriend as a threat to her cherished dream. He may even have been his mother's favorite; his sister Marian remembered that "if she was sick or there was a crisis, she always wanted Gene to be with her."
Eugene's father, Michael, was a very different character. He had been born in central Minnesota in 1875, into "a wilderness of meager hopes," and had endured an austere childhood. A staunch Republican, he had been the Watkins postmaster until displaced by Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats in 1913, and by the time Eugene was born he was a cattle trader, buying cattle in Minnesota and the Dakotas and shipping them to the stockyards in South St. Paul. Michael always regretted his son's choice of a political career; on one occasion, he complained, "Gene is a good boy, but he's in the wrong party." Eugene was evidently in awe of his father, and he recorded his precepts in a series of poems with titles like "Wisdom" and "Integrity." Michael was hot-tempered, gruff and caustic, "a strong Irishman and quite domineering," in the words of one Watkins neighbor. "Dad would flare up and shake you by the back of the neck when he got mad," recalled his second son, Austin. If Eugene did not inherit his father's temper, he certainly inherited his sense of humor. Michael McCarthy's wit was famous in the family: it was dry, bitter, unsentimental and even cruel. He was, his son later wrote, "doubtful of politicians," "suspicious of doctors" and "slow to take pride in sons or daughters." While the children admired him, Eugene's wife, Abigail, wrote that Michael "seemed to look on any show of tenderness and emotional dependence as weakness . . . his appraisal of his fellow men was almost universally sour and he had the habit of limning them unforgettably with biting, homely witticisms." He belonged, she concluded, "to that generation of men for whom the Depression was the last defeat." As later events were to demonstrate, Eugene's own personality owed as much to his father's hard-bitten cynicism as it did to his mother's gentle reserve.
In 1968 a reporter visited Watkins and noted that it had changed little since McCarthy's childhood. It lay seventy miles west of the Twin Cities, across a flat, sullen landscape "deserted except for silos, cylindrical wire corncribs, fishing huts scattered across a frozen lake, black-and-white cows brooding or loping over a glassy coat of snow." Then, suddenly, he saw "a little huddle of buildings dominated by the spire of a redstone church." It was a railroad village, established during the building of the Soo Line across Meeker County in the 1880s, and had been named after a Soo railroad official. By 1930 its population had grown to 512 people, most of them connected with the railroad or dairy farming. "Its stability and growth," Eugene wrote in 1939, "is due to the character of its citizenship which is largely of German extraction with the exception of a scattering of Americans of Swedish and Irish descent. These citizens are thrifty, strongly attached to the soil and progressive in thought and action." All but a tiny minority were Catholics. Watkins and the surrounding area actually contained the highest concentration of German speakers in the state, many of whom had moved to the area even before the building of the railroad. Social life was based on the church and the local beer taverns, and the children studied German for several years at the parochial school. Visiting baseball teams from villages to the north often spoke German, and as Abigail McCarthy reported, "at church the people prayed in German and the sermons were often in German." Watkins, she thought, "seemed almost transplanted from rural Germany to rural Meeker County, Minnesota."
The German Catholics of Watkins attracted little attention from other groups in the state. They were middle-class farmers who kept to themselves and provoked no great nativist animosity. "I don't have to recall how my grandmother was maid to the Saltonstalls as Kennedy did," McCarthy remarked decades afterward. In the early 1930s, however, the Depression hit the farmers of central Minnesota very hard. Farmers rushed to form cooperatives and sometimes violently resisted attempts by businessmen to close down the creameries on which they depended. By convention, the Watkins Germans were mostly Democrats, partly because they disliked the nativism of the Republican Party, and partly because they opposed Prohibition, which they cheerfully ignored after it was enacted in the county in 1915.
While Eugene was growing up, however, the county was gripped by an atmosphere of increasing fear, agitation and class consciousness, exemplified by the popularity in the county of agricultural cooperatives and of A. C. Townley's Non-Partisan League, which paved the way for the success of the radical Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party in the 1930s. The sense of despair and hardship had a powerful impact on the young McCarthy. In 1961 he recalled watching Minnesota farm auctions with his father: "hardworking and honest" neighbors forced to sell all they had for shatteringly low returns. "The experience helped to teach me that we must look first to the needs of the people, and that when these needs are great, we should survey our private and public resources and then determine a policy and work out a program of action," he explained. "Our society cannot operate well if each person and each family is left alone against the world." Michael McCarthy gave up handmade shoes and tailored suits and spent eight weeks at a time on the road, making only $150 a month. His son later wrote of "the spring of no hope . . . the winter of despair," and
. . . the cries of women gone mad on the prairie being taken away in spring wagons because, they said, the grass did not turn green in May.
The Depression notwithstanding, Eugene McCarthy had a happy childhood. Watkins was a quiet town of small, neat stucco houses, proud of its church, its school, its baseball field and its hockey rink. He later wrote fondly about its rituals and seasons, attributing its contented character to four factors: nature, the church, baseball, and the railroad, the Great Soo Line, which sliced through the town and passed right next to Watkins' principal landmark, a bustling grain elevator. Growing up, Eugene and Austin fought and played together, and Eugene, who was older, taller and more aggressive, usually won. He played at emulating his father, selling toy horses to imaginary farms; he wrestled with his little brother and the other local boys; he flew kites and competed hard at baseball and hockey. He adored sport, not least because he was an excellent athlete. Indeed, while he was playing baseball in the Great Soo League, rumor had it that "Mac," as the locals called him, was even scouted by the Chicago White Sox, though an offer never materialized. Eugene thought his childhood was "disconcertingly normal" for a politician who later came to pride himself on defying common conventions. His poems about life in Watkins are gentle, nostalgic celebrations of spring days fishing, running and playing. He was, however, slightly unusual in two respects: he was extremely bright, and he was very well behaved, a "very clean-cut boy, didn't drink, didn't smoke," according to one neighbor. Unlike many of his peers, he loved reading: his favorite books were conventional children's classics such as Tom Sawyer, The Last of the Mohicans, Ivanhoe and Kim. His maternal aunt Mary, who lived next door, owned a collection of Dr. Eliot's Harvard Classics, and the young Eugene worked his way through them one by one. According to Austin, he would "sit there reading them for three or four hours without saying a word." Not surprisingly, he was the academic star of the local parochial school, a staunchly Catholic institution teaching the children of Watkins until the age of about fifteen. McCarthy wryly recalled the fierce Benedictine nuns who administered both education and discipline. But Eugene had little to fear from them: he was an excellent student and the sharpest boy in town.7
At fifteen Eugene left Watkins and moved twenty-five miles north to the little town of Collegeville, where he enrolled in St. John's Preparatory School. Tuition and board cost less than $400, not an enormous amount, but even so his father had to rely on contributions from Eugene's sister Marian and a generous uncle to send his son north. The school was administered by the Benedictine monks of St. John's Abbey, and was attached to a university, which McCarthy entered the following year. It was rare for boys from Watkins to go off to college, but if they did, it was either to St. John's or to the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul. St. John's had an enormous impact on McCarthy, and it irrevocably molded his character and opinions. The university had been founded in 1857 by Benedictine monks from the Bavarian monastery of Metten, who petitioned the territorial legislature for a charter in order to fight off Methodist inroads into the hearts of German Catholic immigrants. The abbey and university enjoyed splendid isolation, lost in the middle of 2,480 acres of central Minnesota woods and lakes. Benedictinism remained the guiding spirit of the institution, which was renowned for its moderation, reasonableness and sense of community. Its ethic, wrote one member of the order in 1930, was "a kind of spiritual tolerance and ease, a spiritual elasticity and receptivity." The monks also prided themselves on their German traditions of scholarship; indeed, only a handful of monks were Irish rather than German Catholics.
The university was in a period of transition when McCarthy arrived, transforming itself from a school for German pioneers to a haven for Catholic intellectuals. As one alumnus put it, its atmosphere in many ways epitomized "the rough camaraderie of an all-male universe," including the revelation that "Benedictine monks are human and can curse as imaginatively, drink as ruinously and laugh as uproariously as their secular counterparts." But the monks took their spiritual devotions extremely seriously, and the same writer also remembered "the medieval rhythms of Benedictine monasticism" and "the haunting, other-worldly sound of Gregorian chant and the awe-inspiring procession of black-robed figures filing two by two into the Abbey Church." For the 460 students who filled the classrooms of the school and the university, the Catholic influence remained extremely strong. Attendance at daily Mass was not obligatory, but most still came, and many groups of students also recited Compline in their own residences. Moral standards were still rigorous: fifty years after the event, Eugene still recalled the outraged reaction of the monks to a singer who appeared with her shoulders uncovered at a concert by the St. Paul Post Office Symphony.
McCarthy studied at St. John's from 1932 to 1935. He was, said one of his teachers, "an outstanding student." English was Eugene's favorite subject, and he remembered with particular fondness his courses on English grammar, the Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman, and the development of the novel. McCarthy's brother recalled mournfully that classes consisted of "a discussion between Father Dunstan Tucker, the teacher, and Gene." Eugene graduated cum laude with a major in English and an A in every course except Plane Trigonometry (C) and The Modern Novel (B). In 1933 the "Watkins Wonder," as his classmates called him, broke the university record by amassing eight consecutive As in his year's coursework. When he graduated in June 1935, the college newspaper reported that his professors were "mourning the loss of one of their chief joys in life"-a student who had finished the BA course with over three times the credits needed for a degree. Father Dunstan Tucker, his English teacher, wrote in 1970 that the "brilliant" McCarthy had set a standard that was "still one of our all-time records." He also noted that the young man had a sardonic streak: "He enjoyed it when someone made a fool of himself in class."
McCarthy was equally renowned for his competitiveness on the sporting field. Sport was central to American Catholic life in the 1930s, and McCarthy excelled at it. In baseball, he was an excellent first baseman; in hockey, he made the first team at center for three successive years and was the top scorer in the conference championship team in 1935. Everyone remembered Gene McCarthy as a mean, rough opponent. "He was an expert needler," remarked his coach. McCarthy himself wrote proudly that if an opponent dropped his mask, he would kick it away: sportsmanship was "a sign of weakness." Abigail McCarthy observed that her husband "played with ferocity and a passion to win and would advance threateningly and vocally upon the umpire at the slightest provocation." At an alumni gathering in the late 1980s another old student accosted him. "He said that he had hated me for 30 years or so," McCarthy explained. "I asked him why, and he replied, 'You never played fair on face-offs.'" Indeed, McCarthy was no shrinking violet. He was a tough and passionate competitor, with a burning desire to win and no great regard for the finer points of the game.