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Chapter 9 - Congressman J. Hardin Peterson

Altvater Library > Sebring Air Terminal

Congressman J. Hardin Peterson
By  A. C. Altvater

         It has been my privilege to have met quite a few important and interesting people - some intimately, some friendly and some casually and some just in passing.

         In all probability, my experiences in this direction have been no different from those of others.  At first, I was awed or overwhelmed when I met a person of special note but Congressman J. Hardin Peterson cured this, in a great degree, by the application of the following prescription;

         I had occasion to go to Washington in an attempt to get the Sebring Air Terminal designated as a “Port of Entry” to try to attract trade via air traffic with South America.  One contact was to be with the Immigration Service.  Congressman Peterson called that Bureau and set up an appointment with Frank Dow, a principal in that Service, for nine o’clock in the morning.

         When Mr. Peterson arrived at the office the next day, I was there waiting but my heart sank when he told me that he had to be on the floor of the House that morning and could not go with me to meet Mr. Dow.  I was almost panic-stricken and I suggested that we postpone the meeting but Mr. Peterson assured me that Mr. Dow would treat me just as cordially as he would if the congressman were there to introduce me, but I told him that I was “scared to death,” as I had never met the head of a department of the government of the entire United States.

         “Nonsense,” he said.  “Look at it this way.  You walk into his office and there he sits behind a huge desk with not a paper on it; leaning back in his chair;  his hands folded over a well-rounded abdomen;  a jovial smile and a pleasant manner.  He is eager to make a good impression on you.

         “Now, you mentally close your eyes and imagine him at home, rushing around the house, trying to get ready for breakfast; his wife fussing with the children who are raising a racket and he trying to find the morning paper but getting no help from the rest of the family.  Under these conditions, he will look like any other man that you know.

         I went - alone - found everything just as described by Mr. Peterson - and met Mr. Dow who was “just like any other man I know.”

         We talked for quite a while in a warm, friendly and unrestrained atmosphere on several subjects of mutual interest (except immigration).  I regretted it when he ended the conversation by directing me to the office of a man who had been advised of my problems and who would give me some help.  Mr. Dow smilingly told me to look for a sign over the door, down the hall, marked “Harry Cryme, Assistant to the Assistant Director.”

         Mr. Cryme was also a very willing and cooperative bureaucrat with a great sense of humor.  My lesson in meeting people in power was successful.

- - - - -

         There could be no finer teacher than Congressman Peterson.  He had every desirable attribute for a man in politics or private life.  When I first met him, he immediately commanded my respect.  As I knew him better, a profound admiration developed and to this was soon added a genuine love for the man.

         His prowess as a politician was definitely proven by the fact that, after he was first elected to Congress, he was only contested a couple times for as long as he chose to stay in Congress.

         “Mr. Pete” as many of his friends knew him, had many qualities that insured his claim to his seat.  One was his almost uncanny memory.  If he met a person and learned his name and if they discussed even a trivial subject, even though they didn’t meet again for years, Mr. Pete would call the person by his first name and would recall the subject they had previously discussed.

         I learned of this unbelievable quality soon after I came home from my stint in the Service.  My friend called and asked if I would like to go with him the following day (which was a holiday) and act as his secretary.  You may believe that I was on time to get him to the first date he had to fill at a well-attended affair at Winter Haven.  The congressman was besieged by constituents who posed all manner of requests, most of which had reference to men in the Service or to material shortages and ration restrictions.  I stood behind him and, as best I could, took notes on the names and problems of the citizens.

         We left Winter Haven in time to get to West Tampa for a lunch at which he was to speak.  Here, again, the crowd had numberless questions and they also had Spanish names that I couldn’t pronounce, much less spell, for my notes.  But Mr. Pete called their names without hesitation and inquired about their relatives (which he would name) or their pets or businesses.

         On to Oldsmar, later in the afternoon, where we met Senator Holland and, together, they participated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony and speeches to a good-sized audience.  I made more notes.

         After a late dinner in St. Petersburg, we finally went to the hotel where there were half a dozen men waiting for conferences and long winded conversations with their friend.  By midnight I was certain that I would never want to be a member of Congress but Mr. Pete took it all very serenely as though that was the normal pattern of life and he seemed as fresh as he did in the morning.

         To prove my value as a secretary, I produced my well-filled and voluminous note book and asked into what form I should put the items for his use.  Here, he proved that he had two salient political qualities.  First, diplomacy.  He complemented me on their completeness and then very diplomatically (so as not to hurt my feelings) told me that he would not need my notes; that he could remember all the details of the day.  This proved to be true and also the second qualification - an infallible memory.

         Sometime later, I had an opportunity to ask the congressman whether his memory was a gift or the product of study and effort.  He explained that it was the sum of both - one must have a natural gift and then he must develop it.  But he modestly protested that, compared to his father’s ability, he was a rank amateur.  The father was a conductor on a freight train and he could walk the length of an ordinary train and go to the desk in the caboose and write down the numbers of the cars in their order in the train.

- - - - -

         As a political figure in Washington, he commanded and received undiluted admiration of all his colleagues.  His philosophies of conduct in government differed greatly from the general run in the Capitol City.  He did not feature fiery speeches on the floor of the House nor did he court flamboyant publicity.  While others were spending their time on foreign trips, he was visiting his congressional district which was quite large as compared to present day area.  His standard greeting to a person he had not met before was, “Hello, I’m your congressman, Hardin Peterson.  Is there anything I can do for you?”

         In Washington, his buddies were men like Charles Bennett, Congressman from Jacksonville.  We had dinner with him one night and later, Mr. Pete explained that Mr. Bennett’s two canes and specially built car required no foot controls.  It seems that, as a captain in the second World War, in the Pacific Islands, he contracted Polio which left him handicapped.  He was awarded a generous disability allowance which he accepted and devoted entirely for purposes in the national interest.

         I was in the congressman’s office one day at lunch time when a couple with two children, from Florida, came in.  Even though he had never seen these people before, he insisted on taking them to lunch.  His secretary told me that this was standard practice.

         But he wouldn’t willingly receive similar favors.  In fact, he had rigid rules against accepting anything of value under any pretext, including contributions to a “campaign fund.”  One of his office personnel once told me that Mr. Pete had found a legal source of sugar which was in short supply after the war which was critically needed by the maker of candy bars.  The businessman was so delighted that he wanted to make a substantial contribution to Mr. Pete’s campaign fund.

         “No way,” was the answer.  “If you want to do something for me, put your next new office or factory in my district, when you expand your business.”

- - - - -

         On another occasion, I as invited to take a trip to Washington and I accepted without hesitation.  After he completed a Saturday morning parade appointment in Lakeland, we took off by automobile for Washington.  While en route, he explained the nature of the trip, as congress was not in session and he said we would be away for less than a week.

         For some years, Congressman Peterson had been the chairman of the House Public Lands Committee and, as such, was a strong power in the affairs of forming the governing body of the island of Guam, following the war.  The newly formed regime was so appreciative of the efforts of Mr. Peterson in their behalf that their first action was to pass a resolution of thanks to him and to direct that a tree be taken from the “place of liberation” (the point where the American troops landed in the capture of the island from the Japanese) that it be taken to the home of Congressman Peterson and planted on his property as a perpetual token of their thankfulness.  The president of the Guam Senate was assigned this duty.

         We arrived in Washington on Sunday and Mr. Pete took care of some business on Monday morning and in the afternoon we met the man from Guam.  He was short, rather heavy-set man - I guessed in his late 30’s or early 40’s.  He had a most engaging smile and a warm disposition which was entirely the opposite of his name - Leon de Guerrero - which he said translated to “Lion Fighter.”

         One Tuesday morning, we all four started for Lakeland - Mr. de Guerrero, Mr. Peterson, myself and the TREE.  The tree became the focal point of the trip.  When we went into a restaurant, the tree went with us.  At night, it went into the hotel carried NOT by the bellboy but by its special envoy, the President of the Guam Senate.  It was never out of his sight.

         Later in the week, in a special ceremony in Lakeland, it was planted on the congressman’s lawn.

- - - - -

         The National Park Service was one of the bureaus which were under the Public Lands Committee of the House of Representatives and, at one time, Mr. Conrad Wirth was the Director of the NPS.  As such, he became a very close friend of Congressman Peterson and, on one of his trips to Florida, he was a guest in the Peterson home in Lakeland.  He spent the day and night of December 12th there and I was to pick him up on the morning of the 13th and bring him to Sebring where he had a speaking engagement at Harder Hall.

         While we were all comfortably sitting on the wide veranda of the Peterson home and were leading the conversation toward the final farewells, Mr. Pete dropped a bombshell.  To Mr. Wirth, he said, “Connie, if you have any important legislation in mind, shape it up and be ready for its introduction as soon as congress convenes.  This will be my last year in Washington.”

         We were all stunned by the statement but, at that point, Miss Iris June Hart, Mr. Pete’s secretary, came out of the house and called him to the phone.  After he left, Mr. Wirth asked Mrs. Peterson if he was serious and determined.

         She replied, “He’d better be or else get a new family.”  And, pointing to the citrus grove on the adjoining hillsides she continued, “When we first went to Washington, we owned all those groves - now, I believe we are down to about ten acres and I’m not sure we have clear title to that.”

         The next was his last year as Congressman Peterson of the First Congressional District of Florida, of which he was so proud.

         He was a truly remarkable man!

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