In March 2013, while writing my undergraduate history thesis on Hubert Humphrey’s role in the 1944 DFL merger, I spoke with University of Minnesota professor emeritus Dr. Hy Berman. As Minnesota’s “unofficial state historian,” I was excited not only to meet him but also discuss his friendship with the former vice president. One topic we spent much time on was Humphrey’s teaching at the University. All uncited quotations come from the transcript of our interview.
In 1969, after having lost the presidential election to Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey was, for the first time in twenty-four years, a private citizen. Having served as Minneapolis mayor (1945-1948), a U.S. Senator (1949-1965), and vice president (1965-1969), he returned home to Waverly, MN, disappointed but unready to retire. As the dust from the campaign settled, Humphrey was already on the phone with University of Minnesota President Malcolm Moos discussing his return to teaching.
Receiving joint appointments at both the University and Macalester College, the former vice president eased into his new life with several public lectures ranging from national security to the legislative process. As an adjunct professor, in the fall of 1969 he taught his first course, the undergraduate-level “Government and Society,” which a press release described as a “colloquium [that] will cover the whole range of public policy and government and society.” Taught one night a week in Blegen Hall, it was an opportunity for Humphrey to share his decades of experience with the next generation of political leaders — and because of this, students were screened ahead of time, having to meet certain prerequisites.
As the director of the University’s Social Science program, Hy Berman was Humphrey’s “boss” (a title the latter jokingly used even on his deathbed) and in a personal interview recalled some of the surprises this came with. For example, as Humphrey was still the head of the Democratic Party, obligations came up forcing him to miss class. Even so,
[H]e made sure that someone covered his classes and we had a string of people come in to my office. One day [Sen.] Barry Goldwater walks in, unannounced, “I’m here to take Hubert’s class cause he had to go somewhere.” A lot of characters came in whenever he couldn’t make a class, they flew in to take his class and flew right back out.
Humphrey’s wealth of experience aside, some students and faculty were disappointed in his teaching style, feeling as though he was incapable of distancing himself from his subject. As Frank Sorauf recalled, who was the chairman of the University’s Political Science Department at the time, when discussing the legislative process,
You would have thought Hubert Humphrey could have talked in an informative, exciting way about the seniority system, draw on some conclusions. [But h]e rambled personal reminiscences … my dear old friend this one and my dear old friend that one …
This just went on and on and you could just see students’ faces falling. This wasn’t what they wanted (31-32).
With tensions from the 1968 election still high, Humphrey faced hostility from faculty and students upset over President Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War. Anger over the vice president’s politics were especially strong in Minnesota as the primary battle pitted him against the DFL Party’s other favorite son: Senator Eugene McCarthy. What many did not understand, though, was that within the administration Humphrey opposed the war and as early as February 1965 suggested Johnson “cut loose.” Yet
because of his kind of political enthusiasm, he had to support the war. He did it in the most enthusiastic way so people thought that he supported the war. And it was a good number of the faculty [who] held that against him. Most of the people in the DFL held that against him. …
Therefore, safety precautions had to be made:
His office on campus was on the second floor of the Social Science Building — a corner office — and the Secret Service was still … protecting him. When they saw his office, they came to me and said, “That’s unacceptable,” because he was in a corner office, isolated. I said, “Well, that’s the biggest office. We’re going to furnish it nicely,” and they said, “We’re very unhappy.”
That evening I went to the hardware store and bought a rope ladder. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I brought it up the next day, went to the Secret Service guys and said, “This will do: Put it down the window and climb out.”
They were concerned the hostility of the students and faculty was so great that they thought he may be in danger.
Fortunately, Humphrey never had to use his rope ladder.
During these two years, the only students who harassed and humiliated him were from Macalester. In fact, the former vice president told a friend that “by the end of that year his stomach muscles were just tensing up whenever he got near the … campus” (Sorauf 31). In contrast, the worst he experienced at the University was a symbolic protest from faculty members.
Still transitioning into his new position, Berman invited Humphrey to attend a meeting of the 39ers Dining Club, an exclusive faculty gathering on campus. But “[A]s soon as I told everyone he was coming, half of the members quit.” In fact, the historian and future state senator Allan Spear accused Berman of giving a “platform to a war criminal” and then “went at it” with the former vice president (Berman 1984 25-26). Still, these antagonisms did not last long:
[S]ome of the most hostile faculty members invited him to a class hoping to catch him in errors and stuff like that. They invited him in with hostility, they came out with admiration. That’s how he won people over.
Humphrey remained at the University for only two years, deciding in 1970 to replace retiring Sen. Eugene McCarthy. He remained in the U.S. Senate until his death in 1978. At that time, in his honor, the University renamed its public administration school the Humphrey Institute (later the Humphrey School of Public Affairs). Interestingly, this is where his successor and fellow vice president Walter Mondale teaches today.
Berman, Hyman; Chambers, Clarke A.. (1984). Interview with Hyman Berman. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, http://purl.umn.edu/48992.
Berman, Hyman; Preston, Joshua P. (2013). Interview with Hyman Berman. Unpublished Transcript.
Sorauf, Frank J.; Chambers, Clarke A.. (1984). Interview with Frank Sorauf. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, http://purl.umn.edu/50623.
University of Minnesota News Service. (1969). Press Releases, July – September 1969. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, http://purl.umn.edu/51860.