Do they make politicians like Missouri farmer Jerry Litton anymore? Let's hope so.
Hope is the salve that soothes all wounds. Election years are big on offering what we sometimes think of as hope, but hope isn’t a branded product peculiar to one candidate or party. Just like darkness, it’s been around since the beginning of time.
Hope and responsibility are the two things that keep a farmer going even more than the promise of wealth. We hope for better weather, better markets, better crops, and sometimes just better luck. I remember having hope at various times during my childhood and later as a teenaged Missouri farmer, and a young adult. As we get older, the knowledge takes hold that not everything is good just as it won’t always be bad. Old farmers like me tend to set hope aside and focus more steadily on facing reality.
Sometimes that reality is harsh.
In the ‘70s I found hope in a political candidate who knew all the right answers. He was a farmer and a scholar. A 1961 graduate of University of Missouri, Jerry Litton earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism and a minor in economics.
Jerry had grown up on a poor farm. With hope and hard work, he turned it into a wealthy one by promoting a French breed of cattle called Charolais. That move had an impact on beef cattle herds in Missouri and all across the Midwest. But the greatest impact Jerry had was on Missouri politics.
Jerry was all Missouri, all the time. He was the kind of man that can make Missourians forget their partisanship and remember only the greatness of a diverse state that sits at the center of our nation. Litton wasn’t just a farmer, a politician, or a Missourian. He was all three combined into one voice for agriculture that has never been replaced. Jerry Litton told it like it was. He gave me, and those like me, hope.
Litton wasn’t without controversy. Occasionally he was a bit of a showboat, like the time he hired Playboy bunnies to come to his northern Missouri ranch and groom cattle for photographers. It was that unabashed approach to everything that made him irresistible to voters and lethal to opponents. His TV show, Dialogues with Litton, broadcast statewide, gave Missourians an opportunity to ask hard questions of politicians who shared the stage with Jerry. These were real question-and-answer sessions that placed Missouri at the center of the political stage.
First elected to the US House of Representatives in 1972, Jerry went on to run for and win the 1976 Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate, the party’s candidate replace retiring Senator Stuart Symington. Though hopes for his victory seemed as sure as for the sun to rise in the east, we will never know the outcome of his race against Republican John Danforth. In the same way both Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and fellow Missourian Mel Carnahan died in later years, Litton and his family were killed in the crash of their private airplane. The tragedy occurred shortly after takeoff from the Chillicothe airport en route to a primary-night victory celebration in Kansas City.
Now, 34 years after experiencing the harsh reality of losing Jerry Litton, a $250,000 fund has been established at University of Missouri to further his work and memory. The fund will pay for a lecture series, “a fellowship for faculty entrepreneurial activities and scholarships for students to develop leadership skills,” and a fellowship “to help students gain farm policy-making experience.”
With many of today’s Missouri politicians grossing much more than $250,000 in huge contributions from special interests, the amount seems almost paltry. On the other hand it would be interesting to see what an honest Missouri farm boy could accomplish with nothing but high expectations and a little seed money.
It gives me hope.