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Clashing with McCarthy: Lessons from Lester Hunt's life and legacy

A headshot of Lester Hunt. A handwritten inscription reads, "My complements to my friend Joe. Lester Hunt Sec. of State, 1940."
American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

June 19 marked the 70th anniversary since former Wyoming Gov. and U.S. Sen.Lester Hunt died by suicide in his office in Washington, D.C. Hunt’s political career peaked amid McCarthyism and he himself was targeted politically by McCarthy’s cronies. For many years, details of the political pressures exerted over Hunt were underreported or hidden. Our panelists, including historians, a current state lawmaker and a mental health expert, consider Hunt’s life and legacy, and the throughlines between his lifetime and today.

Our panelists are:

  • Rodger McDaniel, former state legislator and author of the book, “Dying for Joe McCarthy's Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt”
  • Andi Summerville, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers
  • Sen. Cale Case, current state legislator representing Senate District 25
  • Leslie Waggener, Simpson Archivist at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming

Editor's Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Nicky Ouellet: I want to thank everyone for coming today and I'm especially grateful to our panelists for sharing their time and their expertise, too. I’m Nicky Ouellet. I'm the managing editor here at Wyoming Public Radio.

I'm really looking forward to our panel discussion today about the life and legacy of Lester Hunt, former two-time Wyoming governor and U.S. senator. Our panel today includes Rodger McDaniel. He's a former state lawmaker and author of the book, “Dying for Joe McCarthy's Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt.” We also have Andi Summerville. She's the executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers. We have Sen. Cale Case. He’s a current lawmaker representing Senate District 25. And Leslie Waggener, the Simpson archivist at the American Heritage Center. We'll save some time at the end for any questions from our Facebook Live stream. If you do have a question, please leave a comment in the thread under the Facebook Live video, and we'll get to it at the end.

Leslie, I would like to start with you this morning. The American Heritage Center holds a collection of Hunt’s papers and his letters. Leslie has very graciously prepared some slides for us about Hunt's early life and his later political career.

Just a quick note, before we dive in today, we are going to be talking about some topics that might be difficult for some listeners and viewers. If you or someone you know needs help, or just needs to talk to someone, you can call or text the National Crisis Hotline at 988. Talking often helps. We'll hear more about 988 a little bit later. Leslie, if you want to share your screen, I'd love for you to take it away.

Leslie Waggener: Great, thanks, Nicky. Thanks for letting me be part of this discussion. This is a very, very short overview, kind of to give some context to Lester Hunt’s life before we dive into further conversation. It's about Lester Hunt’s life in the shadow of McCarthyism. I encourage you to read Rodger McDaniel’s very well researched book to learn more about Lester Hunt, and I'm sure we'll learn quite a bit more in this panel discussion today.

Lester Hunt was born in 1892 in Isabel, Illinois, and his journey to Wyoming began in a very unusual place of a baseball diamond. He was quite the pitcher, and it led to him being recruited for Lander’s baseball team in 1911. He put down roots in Lander and he started a dental practice in 1917. [He] married, began a family with wife Nathelle and had two children, Elise and Lester Hunt Jr., known as Buddy. By 1934 though, he was having such pain in his legs that he was having trouble standing by the dental chair. This was because he had given bone grafts to Buddy to treat Buddy's bone cysts. This health setback would lead to a prominent life on the political stage.

Hunt went on to dedicate himself for the rest of his life to public service. He worked as a Democrat in the state legislature. He became Wyoming secretary of state. If you're from Wyoming and you have the bucking horse and rider on your license plate, Lester Hunt as secretary of state commissioned that design and it's been on our license plate since 1936. He next became a very popular two term governor, the [state’s] first two term governor. Remember, he's a Democrat in a traditionally Republican state. And his metal was tested. It was a Republican majority in both the [state] House and the Senate while he was governor, but he handled the situation quite adeptly.

Hunt’s popularity in the state was rising high and after he gave it much consideration, he decided to run for the U.S. Senate while he was still governor. He won in 1948 and began his term in 1949. Then this popularity followed him into the Senate. For example, he served on a special committee in the Senate that was investigating organized crime. The committee chair, Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN), was so impressed with Hunt that Kefauver asked Hunt to be his vice presidential running mate, should he win the 1952 Democratic nomination. Kefauver did not win the nomination. But it's just one example showing how well he was thought of by his senate colleagues.

But there was one Senate colleague with whom he did not get along well, and that was another rising star, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI). When Hunt arrived in the Senate in 1949, McCarthy was on the cusp of what would become a very notorious anti-communism campaign. Although Hunt was no fan of communism, he became disgusted with McCarthy and his tactics, calling them unscrupulous, among other opinions. Those opinions were shared by others, but few dared say them out loud. In fact, Hunt went on to introduce legislation that allowed private citizens to sue members of Congress who libeled them – this was a direct attack on McCarthy and his allies. Unfortunately, that legislation didn't pass. But it showed Hunt’s courageous stance when many others would just bow down to the current pressure of McCarthy and his allies.

This conflict came to a head in 1953 in June when Hunt’s son Buddy was arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover male [police] officer. McCarthy's powerful ally, Sen. Styles Bridges (R-NH), saw an opportunity once he heard about this arrest. Although charges against Buddy were dismissed, Bridges and another ally of McCarthy, Sen. Herman Welker (R-ID), made sure Buddy was prosecuted. They then threatened Sen. Hunt that if he did not resign and if he sought reelection, they would publicize this incident with Buddy. Then they escalated the threat when Hunt resisted by saying they were going to blanket Wyoming with flyers about the situation. So revenge certainly played a role in what they were doing to Hunt. But there was also a very slim Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. They knew, as did Lester Hunt, that if he left, it was a shoo in that a Republican would be appointed to take his place, as the Wyoming governor was a Republican.

Hunt's correspondence at the American Heritage Center shows this inner struggle he was facing as he contemplated what to do, contemplating his choices. He had optimism that McCarthy's popularity was declining. He talks about his own chances for reelection in 1954. There's a health issue he's dealing with. His wife's going through agony because of the family's situation. And then ultimately, he writes that he cannot continue this reelection bid in 1954. I don't know how well you can see the excerpts but in April and May, he is, Yes, I'm going to run. He's looking at poll numbers. By June 4, he says, I cannot do this. What transpired during this period that led up to his suicide on June 19, 1954? I mean, what a drastic choice to make. With this context in mind, I'd like to turn to the panel discussion and discuss the situation and explore any parallels that we can see in today’s political climate

NO: Thank you so much, Leslie, for putting that together and for sharing those elements of Lester's early life. I would like to bring us back into the 1940s and ‘50s for a moment. This is the peak of Hunt's political career and as Leslie said, anti-communist sentiment was on the rise, hitting a boiling point. It was a divisive time in other ways as well. Rodger, I would like for you to talk a bit about your book. In your book, you have a chapter called “The Age of Suspicion.” Can you talk about what that means and what living through that era was like?

Rodger McDaniel: Hunt went to the Senate in the post World War II era at a time when it was becoming increasingly clear that the U.S. and its allies would be in conflict with the Soviet Union. That's sort of the backdrop for what creates McCarthyism and his claim that there were a lot of communists in the government – that Stalin was recruiting spies, particularly among homosexuals. So there was sort of this level of fear that [was] created in the wake of this horrible World War that brought Americans really into a lot of strife and a lot of conflict, not unlike what we're seeing today.

NO: In your book, you mentioned a Gallup poll from 1953 that cited more Americans were afraid of homosexuals than communists. Why were [those fears] coming together in that way and how did they play out?

RM: Prior to McCarthy and some of his allies, there wasn’t too much discrimination against the LGBTQ community. They [the LGBTQ community] still had their lives in Washington, in New York, in the larger cities across the country where they had restaurants and bars where they could gather and socialize. Sometimes they were raided, sometimes they were harassed. But overall, there really was a level of tolerance. But as the Cold War begins and McCarthy's assertion that the State Department in particular was filled with communists, as he was unable to make that case fit, he and Sen. Styles Bridges (R) from New Hampshire, who plays a key role in this whole story, made the allegation that Adolf Hitler had assembled a list of American homosexuals. His plan was to recruit them as spies. That list, McCarthy and Bridges said, had fallen into the hands of [Joseph] Stalin, and that Stalin was now busy recruiting homosexuals to be spies against their country. So that creates this wave of fear about homosexuals. They are now thought to be security risks. If they are security risks, they have to be removed, particularly from the government.

That's where Buddy Hunt has the encounter that he has in June of 1953 with an undercover officer, which was part of a 600 officer force in the District of Columbia whose job was, quote, “pervert elimination.” Their mission was to find and identify homosexuals, and if they worked for the government, they would be removed from the government. It's one of those undercover officers that starts this whole drama when he confronts Buddy in Lafayette Park in June of 1953.

NO: This was kind of a popular park for cruising, for finding folks to hook up. Can you go a bit more in detail about what happened after that?

RM: Buddy’s arrested. His father hires a lawyer for him. I think it's really critical to understanding Lester Hunt's personality and his values, how steadfast he sticks with Buddy throughout this whole ordeal. He does not take a sort of typical political position. He's the father and so he hires a lawyer. The lawyer talks with the U.S. Attorney's Office and they decide that charges should be dismissed. Buddy didn't work for the government. He wasn't a threat that way. He was a seminary student at the time. The U.S. Attorney's Office concluded there was little likelihood that he would be a repeat offender, so the charges were dismissed at this point.

Sen. Bridges and Sen. [Herman] Welker (R-ID) learned about the charges. It's interesting at first, I think, when you read Styles Bridges’ papers at the New Hampshire archives. Bridges believes it's Lester Hunt Sr. who has been arrested. And he's like, Wow, this is going to be a scandal we can work with. Turns out it was Lester Hunt’s son. Of course by then [Bridges and Welker] decided to pursue this.

The first thing they do is make sure charges are reinstated, that the U.S. Assistant who had dismissed them is removed from the case. Somebody else takes over the prosecution. There's a trial. Buddy is found guilty. His parents sit through the trial, which lasted about a week. At the end of the trial, the judge finds him guilty of “one of the most heinous crimes a man can commit.” I guess this judge had not tried murder cases or rape cases. But in the same instance, he finds him guilty. He pays a $100 fine and Buddy then goes to Cuba, pre-Castro days, teaches literacy classes to poor campesinos in the mountains of Cuba.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., the attacks begin and the threats begin. The first threat comes through somebody Wyomingites know: [Glenn] Red Jacoby, who was the athletic director at the University of Wyoming. He and Hunt had built War Memorial Stadium. They had raised the money to do that. So they're good friends. But Herman Welker, the senator from Idaho, was also a friend of Red Jacoby. They played baseball together as kids in Idaho. So Sen. Welker calls Red Jacoby and says, You need to tell your friend Lester Hunt that if he doesn't resign from the Senate, we're going to publicly expose his son. That starts what I call in the book “the year from hell” for the Hunt family and for Sen. Hunt in particular.

NO: Sen. Case, I want to bring you in at this moment. I know that your family knew Lester. Do you have any anecdotes, or what can you say about who Lester Hunt was?

Cale Case: My father and Lester Hunt, along with another gentleman named Harold Del Monte, were partners in a drugstore. The way that came about is my father wasn't a pharmacist, but he had been, as a boy, in a pharmacy in Rock Springs during the flu epidemic. Believe it or not, the pharmacist's own family had a tragedy during the flu epidemic. Dad was in charge of the store at 12 years old. With the help of the doctor in Douglas, they got through the flu epidemic and Dad’s own father had been the justice of the peace but passed away, so he was kind of a semi orphan. He returned to Lander to join his family and go to high school here. That's probably when he met Lester first because my dad was a big sports guy – basketball, football back in those days. I think they had a connection there.

Later in the ‘30s, there was a pharmacy in Lander that went bankrupt and at that time, there was no pharmacist in the town. Hunt and Del Monte put in the money and helped the court with receivership and they sent my dad to school down in Colorado, to Capitol College of Pharmacy. It was either a 90-day course or a 60-day course, I haven't figured that out yet. But he graduated in May of ‘36. So even while Hunt was being the secretary of state, he was backing Dad to be in this pharmacy.

That relationship continued to the day of Lester Hunt's death. At that time, my father still owed some money. He was still buying him out but they were close. There's lots of anecdotes and another book about Lester Hunt by Charlotte Dehnert. Their relationship was close. My father was asked to be an honorary pallbearer at Sen. Hunt’s services in Cheyenne. I can't even imagine the sequence of events that had happened so rapidly.

He committed suicide on a Saturday. It was a day after McCarthy had kind of given a very strong threat aimed directly at him, and Rodger probably can talk about that more, but it was clear from McCarthy's threat this was against Sen. Hunt. The next day was a Saturday when he killed himself in his office. The United States Congress, both houses, adjourned on a – well they met briefly on the Monday following the Saturday. They passed courtesy resolutions. They appointed people to attend the services and the chaplains offered prayers. Then they adjourned out of respect for Sen. Hunt. There were services held in Washington, D.C. that afternoon. That evening, Sen. Hunt’s body was flown to Cheyenne along with the family, followed by yet another Air Force plane with a kind of a very large delegation from Washington. On Tuesday morning in Cheyenne, which is coming up soon. June 22 would be the Tuesday morning Hunt’s body laid in state at the Wyoming Capitol and the state offices were closed. People filed by respectfully to view the body. They took the body in a cortege to St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Cheyenne. As they're going into the church, the United States Air Force flew eight jet planes over the city of Cheyenne in tribute. It is astounding. They say that everywhere the cortege went that there were people lining the streets, people were crying, people were standing respectfully. We're talking about hundreds, even thousands of people. It is really an astounding story.

"I see so many parallels between 1954 and that era, and the era that we have now."
— Sen. Cale Case

The fact that my dad was there has made it very poignant for me. I've wanted to bring attention to this 70th anniversary because I see so many parallels between 1954 and that era, and the era that we have now. I think there's hope in this story, when you figure out what comes next. But I think we can learn a lot. The issue of suicide – I hope we can use this opportunity in Wyoming to really bring attention to our astounding problem with suicide and the fact that it's something that we can do so much about and make such a difference. Because with suicide, all people really need is one person to help.

NO: I want to start teasing apart the parallels that you just mentioned. Sen. Case, I know this was before your lifetime, but the tenor of American and Wyoming politics in the 1950s. It's fair to say that politicians did and even before then, and still now, have run dirty campaigns. But I'm hoping maybe you can put this into context for us, this blackmail attempt of exposing Hunt’s son’s arrest. How was that seen politically then?

CC: Certainly we have to try to put ourselves back in that time. One thing to remember is homosexuality was illegal. There were crimes against it. It seems kind of crazy now. I think politicians have probably always tried to use dirt on other people. But in good times, I think there's a certain standard that should apply. There was no standard whatsoever [with] the behavior of Sen. McCarthy and his two cronies that were instrumental in this. It came out of an era of fear. I think Rodger brings that point home very well. I think fear is the most harmful of human emotions where we just – everything gets thrown out the window when you're afraid. We saw that then and we see that now. People are afraid of different things. People were scared. The Red Scare was real.

As far as the politics go, it's amazing what goes up and what comes down. When Hunt was first elected secretary of state in Wyoming, all five elected officials were Democrats for the first time in history. That was an amazing thing. You have to remember that was during [Pres.] Roosevelt's [administration] and fighting the [Great] Depression. Then we went to wartime footing and the Democrats maintained quite a hold. It wasn't until ‘48 that the Republicans started to make inroads again. Then [Pres.] Eisenhower won very big in 1952.

But things were so dirty at that time that Sen. Joseph McCarthy actually came to my county, Fremont County, and he held a rally in support of getting then-Gov. [Frank] Barrett (R-WY) elected to the other U.S. Senate seat that was up for election that year, and he won that election. The governor won that election, he beat [Joseph] O'Mahony. There was this rally in a very rural part of Fremont County and according to the press reports, it was attended by 3,500 people, which is an astounding number for anywhere in rural Wyoming. I think it was at Diversion Dam, if anybody knows where that is. It's on the Wind River as part of the reservation.

McCarthy stood there and akinned the Democratic Party to the Commie-crats, used that term, and he also talked about hunting communists like you hunt skunks. He’d hunted skunks as a boy. Sometimes you get stink on you, but you gotta hunt skunks. And he shouted out to the crowd, Do you want me to still hunt communists and skunks? And 3,500 people shouted, Yes, yes! They were all for it. That was when things were starting to change. I'm convinced that they came here for that rally just to stick it to Sen. Hunt a little bit. That was in 1952 and that would have been an inkling that Sen. Hunt’s political future might have been changing as the tide of change was moving back towards the Republicans. In fact, in his own Senate election, Lester Hunt had not carried Fremont County very well. It was a real squeaker. So this was just like signs of time, very hard ball politics.

We do see it now today. But it ebbs and flows. I'm hoping that we can get it to ebb again because I see the parallels today with the nastiness, the bombasticness. The way that people can make appeals without facts and just keep repeating lies over and over again, and yet are very popular in winning elections because of it. I think we see some of that now. Definitely saw it then. But the lesson here is it after these events with Sen. Hunt, and interestingly enough, just 10 days before his suicide was the Army McCarthy hearings when the civilian attorney for the Army uttered the words on TV, “Have you no decency, sir?” and that these things were televised for the first time. The tide was changing. By that fall, McCarthy was censored by his colleagues in the United States Senate. I just see tons of lessons in this.

NO: Definitely some through lines there. Rodger, you wrote a bit about the style of politicking being different at the national level than at the state level when Hunt was an office. Can you speak to that a bit?

RM: The jobs were so much different. Hunt as governor, if something needed to be done, you did it. As a United States Senator, if something needed to be done, you talked about it. And you talked and you talked and you talked. Hunt was really frustrated the first few months in that job because it was so different from what he had experienced in Wyoming. He experienced an entirely different ethical environment, largely the introduction from Joe McCarthy.

Now there are a couple of interesting parallels. Joe McCarthy ran for the Senate two years before Lester Hunt did. He was a judge and the Wisconsin constitution said nobody can hold one office and run for another office. So there was a lawsuit about whether or not McCarthy could stay on the ballot. The court ruled that the state could not control the qualifications for a federal candidate, so McCarthy was able to run. Two years later, Gov. Hunt is running for the Senate. There's a lawsuit brought to keep him off the ballot and the court in Wyoming said no, under the law, the state cannot establish qualifications for a federal candidate. It cited the McCarthy case in Wisconsin. They get together when Sen. Hunt gets to Washington. A guy like Sen. Hunt could not fathom somebody like Joe McCarthy. One of the examples is that the Hunts bought a home that overlooked down across the alley, and across the way you could see the backyard or the patio of Sen. McCarthy's home. Hunt would complain that they had to sit and watch McCarthy cavort with women and drink alcohol – he was a teetotaler, his mother had been head of the temperance union back in Illinois – and the whole womanizing thing, just appalled Sen. Hunt, that the United States senator would behave that way.

Then they clashed in what are called the Malmedy [Massacre] hearings. Malmedy was one of the final battles of the Second World War, Battle of the Bulge, part of that, and in the process, Nazi soldiers had slaughtered American prisoners of war. At the end of the war, that was investigated and there were charges brought and allegations from Stalin and others that the U.S. had violated the civil rights of the Nazi officers and had coerced confessions, that sort of thing. The Senate, wanting to make sure that America's good name stood up internationally, decided to investigate that. Sen. Hunt, in the first few weeks he was in the Senate, was appointed as part of this really significant committee. Joe McCarthy was not a member, but he insinuates himself into the hearings. When you read the transcripts of those hearings, you just get the sense that he bullied his way through it and inexplicably sided with the Nazis. So that's Hunt’s first exposure to McCarthy. And it gets worse as they go. You've already cited the legislation to allow people to sue members of Congress for libel and there were other confrontations that they had. So it was clear from the day that Sen. Hunt arrived that he was on some sort of collision course with Joe McCarthy.

NO: He was really thrown into some very difficult issues right in his first first year of holding the seat. I found this quote from a correspondent at the New York Times named Allen Drury, who described Hunt when he first came to D.C. as “Sixty-ish, dumpy, always smiling, always humorous, outwardly serene, but obviously a host to hidden demons.”

Andi Summerville, I would love to bring you in. I'd like to hear more about that phrase, “hidden demons.” How did Americans understand mental health or moments of acute emotional distress during this time in the middle of the 20th century? And what kind of resources were available for people who are struggling?

Andi Summerville: That's a really great question. Mental health in the United States has been something of a slow comer to the field of health care, for sure. It you think back to that time, Congress didn't even really have their first conversation about anything related to mental health or suicide until the very late ‘50s. I believe it was ‘58 or ‘59. They didn't even begin to recognize that it was an issue until the mid ‘60s. So you think back to that time and the culture and just everything that was happening – somebody that was struggling with a mental illness, or having suicidal thoughts, that wasn't something that they really had resources to go to. There wasn't anywhere to go. It was something that they kept internally. They didn't talk about it. It was shameful. Frankly, it's still something we struggle with today, that legacy, in terms of suicide and seeking help for mental health issues continues on today. We've made some serious strides. But it really took Congress and the United States in general a long time to move forward.

Congress started with some small research funding and working with I believe it was the National Institute of Mental Health back in the day to move things. But it took almost four years from when they started that conversation before they had a conversation about having a suicide hotline, just providing that basic of a resource in the United States. Congress didn't provide that funding until 2001. What we know today is 988, which when it was stood up was the National Suicide Hotline, didn't actually open its doors until 2005. That really frames for me that perspective on, wow, that took a really long time. We're still maybe in our late infancy in starting to develop and really get ahead of those resources. So somebody like Sen. Hunt really didn't have anywhere to go to. You really relied on a friend or a family member that you could talk to, if you were willing to have that conversation with somebody, which again, most people really kept it inside and kept it internal. I think that's reflected in the data that you look at. It's a little scary to think that it was really not uncommon back then for families, if somebody died by suicide, to try to hide that fact. Nobody wants that fact to be known. It wasn't something that they wanted to discuss, that feeling of shame of having those thoughts, or having a family member that was going through that were very significant.

CC: I think a tell in Sen. Hunt’s situation, and it's a big tell for people, [is that] his own brother had died by suicide in the same violent manner two years earlier. This is why the discussion about suicide really, really matters, and that people need to understand that they always think they're making the world better off. And the truth is, it's a tragic devastation that people, families are wiped out, friends are wiped out, and it tends to repeat. That's why we need to really focus and use this event to address the issue of suicide in Wyoming.

"The idea that suicide affects one person, that they're making the world a better place, is one of the biggest fallacies that continues to remain."
— Andi Summerville

AS: To that point, that the idea that suicide affects one person, that they're making the world a better place, is one of the biggest fallacies that continues to remain. A death by suicide affects the family members, as so evidenced by this case. It really impacts community members. We continue to learn more about that. But I don't think that was really recognized for a very, very long time. Those are true ripple effects.

There's something in the mental health world that we call clusters. Unfortunately to this day, when we see one death by suicide, we tend to see clusters. Sometimes we're all of a sudden, we've had no deaths by suicide and now we've got three, we've got four, we've got six, over a six or 12 month period. That's something that needs to be talked about, as well as suicide has no demographic. It doesn't matter what your race or your ethnicity is. It doesn't matter how much money you make, where you live, where you came from. It has no demographic. We know now, way better than we did way back then, that middle aged men and older men and older adults to a large extent are largely impacted in Wyoming. They're our most high risk group, as of today. And again, you know, the question becomes: Do we spend enough time talking about that? Do we spend enough time trying to make sure that everybody knows that there are resources today that we've developed? It's been a long time coming, but there’s really help for everybody and that anybody can be affected.

LW: I found it interesting that Lester Hunt killed himself, I believe with the same type of weapon that his brother had used two years previously. When you said these things happen in clusters, it just really struck me that that was his weapon, the same as his brother's.

RM: When I first met his son, Buddy, it’s kind of a funny story. I get a Facebook friend request one day from Lester C. Hunt Jr. I wrote a column for the newspaper and a mutual friend had shared some columns that I had written, and he wanted to talk to me. We visited and I said, Somebody ought to write your father's biography. He said, Well, how about you doing that? And I said, Well, I'll give that some thought. He invited me to Chicago to visit with him. I went out for a week. Wonderful, wonderful human being. Very delightful. By then, he had been married for 40 years and had two daughters and grandchildren. I asked him how he dealt with his father's suicide. And he said, Years of psychological therapy. And I said, Why? And he said, Well, it was my fault. What I did caused my father to kill himself. He did not know of the blackmail. In fact, he didn't understand how it would be possible to blackmail somebody with information that had been in the newspapers. But when I looked at the research in the book, looked at all of the newspapers in Wyoming during that time period, I think it appeared in only two newspapers. Rawlins ran the Drew Pearson column that exposed the whole blackmail and I think it was the Torrington newspaper, on about page 16, had a little story that said, Washington, D.C. man convicted of morals charge. People in Wyoming didn't know about it and the blackmail could be useful. But Buddy was convinced. He spent most of his life convinced that his father killed himself because of what he had done, which was some justice that he got from the book. He called me after he saw the manuscript and said, Thank you. Now I know what happened. I didn't realize how much torment they put my father through in that last year of his life.

Andi, you may find this interesting. He referred me to the research of Émile Durkheim, who is a 19th century sociologist who was credited with creating the discipline of sociology. Durkheim’s theory wrote a lot about suicide and his theory boiled down to a belief that when someone commits suicide, it's a symptom of deeper problems in the culture.

"It's connected somehow to broken places in the culture."
— Rodger McDaniel

When you look at Sen. Hunt’s suicide, it certainly was the result of deeper problems in the political culture. But when you look at any number of suicides – the higher the suicide rate among LGBTQ youth, or the suicide rate among farmers during difficult financial times, or veterans. It's connected somehow to broken places in the culture. I found that work very interesting and I think it has to be part of the discussion here in Wyoming about, how do we reduce the suicide rate? What do we do to fix those broken pieces of the culture that cause people to feel the only way out is to take their life?

AS: Rodger, I think that's an immensely important point. To that quote, as you heard earlier about inner demons, we all have to realize that as human beings, you don't know what your neighbor has been through. You haven't walked through their shoes. You don't know the weight that they're carrying. How we treat people societally on a personal level can have such a tremendous impact and influence. I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up, as we talk about Sen. Hunt, what that conversation would have been like in the age of social media. That is one of our big challenges that we have right now with our youth, with our young people and with the political tenor of the day. We've talked about [how] there wasn't a lot of information, as Rodger stated, about what had actually happened with Buddy. Now we live in a day and age where there's all kinds of information, true or not. It seems easier for people to hide behind the internet when they make comments. And that reflects on how we treat each other. Those types of issues really, really do impact people.

One interesting thing about what we see with people that die by suicide, they are not people that are receiving ongoing mental health treatment. They are not people that are suffering from another type of mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Those usually are not the people that we see. We call them our silent sufferers, where they are dealing with their internal demons. They're dealing with a perception from the culture that they live in or other issues. And that really manifests in itself in an unfortunate way. I think it's just interesting to look at that dynamic between the times and how much pressure Sen. Hunt still felt and what that might look like in today's world with all of the additional tools and social media that are out there.

CC: That's really fabulous. I have been thinking about all this and I think that when Rodger and Buddy connected, that was really a miracle. Buddy's whole life had to be really amazing. To overcome all that, and then finally, to have Rodger explain, especially the part about a publisher in Wyoming named Tracy McCracken, who actively covered the story up and was a Democratic State Committee man. He was also an honorary pallbearer at Hunt’s funeral.

I just think it's so important. I've been trying to reach out to the Hunt family and I've had no luck. I know there are people out there that are descendants and I think they'd be pleased to know how Wyoming, after seventy years, has finally taken something that was really buried – the demons of homosexuality of suicide – and I feel like we're finally doing justice here by having all these observations around the state. Next week there's going to be a couple of ceremonial things in Cheyenne that'll be on the anniversary of the suicide. Anyway, Rodger, you've done some great work. You really have.

RM: A shout out to you Cale for creating interest on the 70th anniversary around the state. The story was kept quiet for decades because of Tracy McCracken. You talked about people gathered at the funeral. Vice President [Richard] Nixon was there, well over 14 U.S. senators, Tracy McCracken. They're sitting around the conference room at St. Mark's Church waiting to do their duty as pallbearers and they have this conversation. Everybody knew what happened. And Tracy McCracken, the newspaper publisher, said, I'm not going to publish the story. It would kill Mrs. Hunt. Mrs. Hunt fought for years to keep the story from being told, threatened to sue Dr. T.A. Larsson when he included the story in his history of Wyoming, because the stigma of homosexuality and the stigma of suicide was so great. She didn't want her son dragged through that again. And so for decades, few people in Wyoming knew the story.

I worked on Teno Roncalio’s (D-WY) staff when he was a congressman. He had been a close friend of Lester Hunt’s. Knew the whole story. And when I when I asked him about Sen. Hunt’s suicide, all he would say is, They treated that man very badly. That was in the mid ‘60s and into the ‘70s. Nobody wanted to talk about suicide, as Andi has noted.

I do want to make one point that I think we need to cover and that is what brought it on. Leslie alluded to that and also Cale to that timeframe. For a year, he's subjected to incredible torment. We've talked about some of it but people broke into their home in Washington, D.C. when they were back in Lander for Christmas and ransacked it, obviously looking for something. If you can imagine the emotional stress of having somebody do that to you, along with these political threats. The iconic philosopher Albert Camus said if you want to know why somebody committed suicide, look at the last encounter they had with another human being and what was said that maybe stirred their soul or caused them grading angst, anxiety. And that, for Lester Hunt, was Joe McCarthy. On Friday afternoon, McCarthy announces that he is going to hold a hearing, one of his famous hearings that resulted in prior suicides and ruined reputations and caused people to lose their jobs and their livelihoods. But he said on Friday, I'm going to open a hearing on a Senate colleague of mine who was involved in paying a bribe to have charges dismissed. Well, that was what Bridges and Welker had alluded to months earlier when the charges were first dismissed against Buddy Hunt. They said it was because Sen. Hunt paid a bribe. Never any evidence of that. But McCarthy is now going to open up hearings. I think that was the moment when Hunt said, I'm not doing this anymore. I told him I wouldn't run for re-election. That wasn't enough. They're still out to ruin our family. And so the next morning, he killed himself.

NO: We're in a moment where states are passing legislation that seems to be targeting minority groups. I'm just thinking about how it's a difficult moment politically, that can drive people to crisis. Andi, I'm eager to hear more about what kind of resources are available. I've heard about the Pick Up Man campaign, a more grassroots kind of thing. Can you talk to that? And also to the 988 hotline?

AS: We've really seen a lot of movement. I can't think of a better legacy for Sen. Hunt than to continue to work on this issue and to help our friends and neighbors. The Pick Up Man campaign, we've got a number of our energy companies that are doing their own internal campaigns and stepped up to the plate with their employees, which is really just exciting to see. Our county prevention offices are getting out there and doing more work, trying to work with our minority groups here in the state and make sure that they have access. LGBTQ is important, it can be very difficult and they certainly need resources. Our tribal members, we really are trying to work and provide those resources in a culturally important and appropriate way and in a way where we meet people where they're at. It is so important. There's not one door or one pathway to help. You really need to provide a multitude of ways for somebody to reach out because you need to meet them where they are.

So 988: Wyoming was the last state a couple of years ago to get an in-state call center. We are so thankful that we've done that. The call centers here, they're busy. They're taking on average more than 500 calls a month right now from Wyoming residents. We believe that number will continue to grow as the FCC finishes and Congress finishes working on changing it from an area code based system to a digital geolocation so it’ll go to the state you're actually standing in. We brought that [resource] online here in Wyoming and trying to reach people where they're at. 988 provides direct access to the Veterans Crisis Line and there's an LGBTQ specific line for those groups that feel that they want somebody who understands them better, which is an absolutely fair and appropriate ask and resource to have for those groups. We are, in Wyoming, just bringing on the text and chat features.

As we talk about risk groups, our younger folks under the age of 25, we are seeing increased suicidal risk in our schools. It was very heartbreaking to hear that about 10 percent of our middle school and high school students have actively engaged in planning suicide or have attempted suicide. We have to figure out how to reach them, and text and chat is where they want to be. So we're rolling those services out to people.

In Wyoming here, you can call, text or chat 988. You can walk into an ER. You can walk in or call a community mental health center. There's a variety of private practice and other mental health resources available in every community. But what we really want to get out to everybody is that there is absolutely an option and there's a resource. One of 988’s best features is that it can be anonymous, if somebody wants it to be that way. You can call and ask for help and get resources, or you can be a family member who calls and says, Hey, something's going on. I don't know what to do. We want them to go ahead and call 988. We'll get them connected. We're gonna continue to work on building out those resources. We're in a much better position as a state than we were five years ago. We've fallen down the state rank rankings a little bit in Wyoming, it sounds almost macabre to be excited about that. But Wyoming has been number one in suicide per capita for so long. It looks like we’ve fallen down to number three from the last year and I think that is evidenced by the ongoing efforts that are going out and the new resources that are there. So again, the message is there's always hope. There's always an option and pick a door: We will meet you whichever way you'd like to come in.

NO: What recommendations might you have for parents, siblings, friends who notice that someone they love is really having a hard time. What can they do?

AS: I'll kind of break that into two groups. For our kids, or our adolescent and our younger kids, let's say 10 and older population, we know that they talk to each other. They don't necessarily talk to adults. So when something's going on, that's where they're likely to go. We want to continue to provide resources to them about what to do when that comes. Basically, an adult needs to be brought into the conversation at some point, a trusted adult. That can be a teacher, a counselor, friends’ parents, an older sibling, whoever that is. They can also text and chat, either Safe2Tell here in Wyoming or 988 is always an option for parents and adults that know somebody is struggling. 988 is just such a phenomenal resource and the ability to help walk them through what steps can be taken and what might be helpful, and how do you get somebody that help. We want to encourage folks to reach out and have that conversation.

In addition, one of the other things that we've been doing across the state for the last couple of years is rolling out, through a variety of groups, different types of training. People that are interested in knowing how to provide more on-scene immediate support, they can go through a training that's just a couple hours long that really provides them the tools on how to help somebody, keep them safe and move them towards services.

The last thing that I would just say is: We know that the most important thing is that somebody talks to somebody else. If you have a friend, or a child, or a sibling that you know is struggling, take the time and sit down and talk to them. Don't be afraid to have that conversation. Don't be afraid to step into that space, because that conversation may very well save their life.

CC: I've learned that the suicidal thoughts are common. Many, many people get a little bit of help, just a little bit more assistance at this crisis time. And their lives are better for the rest of their lives. It's not that you're in a cycle of a pattern that you can't ever get out of. It's actually very recoverable. It really is.

AS: It absolutely is. Everybody at one point in time will struggle with something. Suicidal thoughts can be caused by situation, culture as we've talked about, financial issues, family issues, job stress. There's so many different things that can really factor into that. Sen. Case, you are absolutely correct. One conversation, just a little bit of help, can make all the difference.

RM: Now, there's one other factor that needs to be discussed, too. That is the research done by the Trevor Project, which is a suicide prevention effort largely aimed at LGBTQ people. Their research shows that when there is a debate in the state legislature about trans[gender] people or about gay people, their rights or their dignity – and last year more than 500 bills were introduced, anti-LGBTQ community bills – when those debates occur, it drives up the suicide ideation among that population and attempts increase. You can imagine that when those debates occur, that people in that community consider it a direct attack, not on just them or their dignity, but their right to exist. The things that get said about them during those debates are very harmful. I don't know, Senator, whether some of your colleagues would buy that argument, but the research is out there and it tracks suicide ideation and attempt rates to those political debates. That would explain Durkheim’s theory, actually.

CC: Yes, thank you, Rodger, I think you're absolutely correct.

LW: I just wanted to add a quick note. In 2022, The American Heritage Center sponsored a tour of a play called “A Sissy in Wyoming,” about a man who lived in Douglas who was a crossdresser. He suffered a lot of abuse for that. After each of the performances – we did a nine-city tour – we had talkbacks. I was there for most of them and just seeing – it was many of the LGBTQ+ community in our state and the pain that I sensed, that they didn't feel like they had a safe place to talk except for there felt some safety in that place. And the stories that we heard and the stories from parents that we heard of their kids who had been struggling, especially with identity issues and gender issues. It was, wow. It was eye opening to listen to those stories.

NO: I can imagine. I don't know how but we've already come up on an hour. I wish that we had much, much more time. As a final question, I would like to ask all of you: You're pretty up close and personal with the daily ins and outs of state politics and have been for years. How have you found ways to protect your own emotional and mental well being during these times that can be very polarizing and difficult? And maybe Sen. Case, we can begin with you.

CC: Oh, thanks a lot. You know, politics is pretty hard ball business. I've been around long enough that it's easier for me now. I'm not that worried about getting reelected or what the certain party thinks of me. And that's provided me peace. But I do know, I have colleagues that agonize over this and very, very good people, that won't vote their conscience on the floor of the Wyoming Senate because they feel pressured about the next election and how this will play out and things. Thankfully, I'm past that. I'm very grateful to that.

I do think that the attacks in politics are very, very harmful. There's a certain dignity and respect for our political process for democracy, if you will, and the way we interact. Hunt was the epitome of that. That's something I'd like to bring forward. That's why this is about civility. There are other folks that are just incredibly harmed. Rodger, you are in politics too and you know that politicians' families suffer greatly from the attacks. They take it much harder, actually, I think than the elected person does sometimes. It's a hard business. It's a cruel business. I think people are basically in it for the right reasons. They truly, truly are. But so many people now, and it's so easy to just put a terrible email together or have a calling tree for phones the night before the election that calls you all sorts of things. There's a group called Honor Wyoming that says I don't have any integrity. They've got me as a low integrity person on their website. Now listen, my integrity is my bond, my word. That's not civil. We're all better than that. We’ve got to get there and we’ve got to get that back.

AS: For all the discussion and debate, and I don't have to stand on the floor of the legislature, but I'm trying to support everybody – just having people to talk to is so incredibly important. Having friends that kind of trudged through that together. I think Sen. Case’s comment about the families is so important. Making sure that they feel supported and they have the resources. This is a very, very hardball business at the moment. It's a really good opportunity to just take a minute, take a breath and say to everybody, It really matters how we treat each other. I'm reminded that our K-12 school districts do all these “kindness matters” campaigns and we try to teach our kids about that stuff. I wonder if we haven't forgotten that a little bit as adults. It would be an excellent time to remind people that kindness really does matter. How you treat people matters. You can disagree, and that's fine. But there's a line there. In the meantime, friends, family, people that you can talk to. Just don't take it on and keep it on your shoulders by yourself.

RM: Keep in mind, I'm at a point in my life where I'm not asking for votes. I'm not running for office. The legislature can't cut my budget anymore. I write a column for the Cheyenne and Laramie newspapers every week and I've been doing that for 13 years. Somebody asked me, Do you think you're changing anybody's mind? And I said, No, but it helps me keep my own. It's therapeutic to be able to say what you feel without feeling like you're going to lose a job or lose a vote or lose a friend. At my age, it may be a little easier. But I really appreciate Sen. Case's workto confront his colleagues with this question of civility and how they treat one another and the things they say. I noted his resolution that asked him to commit to civility, 10 of his colleagues voted no. He's a little bit like Sisyphus, pushing that rock up the hill. But God bless you for fighting that fight. And you, Andi, for the knowledge and information you bring to the legislature that they have to weigh. They may or may not do what you'd like them to do, but they have to weigh it, they hear it and they need to know it. So I think by modeling those kinds of truthful relationships with one another, we do help.

LW: I'll just say I'm more in the worriers camp on the state and national level. But I find Sen. Case, who I’ve gotten to know, and people like Rodger, and thank goodness Andi's here. Lester Hunt’s story, there's an inspiration there for bravery, for courage. I find that inspiring and I hope that we can get some of that integrity back, like I see in this panel, and I see in Lester Hunt.

Nicky has reported and edited for public radio stations in Montana and produced episodes for NPR's The Indicator podcast and Apple News In Conversation. Her award-winning series, SubSurface, dug into the economic, environmental and social impacts of a potential invasion of freshwater mussels in Montana's waterbodies. She traded New Hampshire's relatively short but rugged White Mountains for the Rockies over a decade ago. The skiing here is much better.

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