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Kansas senator played role in destiny of Dwight Eisenhower

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, at 10:02 p.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, “Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.”

“To the Secretary of War:

“I nominate Dwight Eisenhower of Abilene in the County of Dickinson, in the state of Kansas, for appointment, from the State at large, as a Cadet of the United States Military Academy.

He has been an actual resident of the State for 18 years, and, after due inquiry, I believe that he is in every respect qualified for appointment.

His age is 19 years and ---months.”

—Joseph Bristow, United States Senator, Oct. 28, 1910.

More than a century ago, a 19-year-old from Kansas appealed to one of the state’s most powerful politicians asking for a chance to attend military school.

It was a routine request for the senator. He could have easily turned down the request of the dirt-poor Kansan.

For the 19-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower, it would put him on a course with destiny, eventually allowing him to become one of the most beloved Kansans of all time.

Eisenhower, the third of seven sons, received the appointment to West Point in 1911.

Most Kansans recognize his name today as being the supreme Allied commander during World War II and the nation’s 34th president.

Lesser known by 21st century Kansans is the senator’s name — Joseph Bristow.

He too had come from humble beginnings, but quickly rose to prominence.

Bristow was born July 22, 1861, in a log cabin near Hazel Green, Ky. His father, William Bristow, was a Methodist minister who came to Kansas in 1871, bringing his son and the rest of family two years later.

The younger Bristow received his bachelor’s degree from Baker University in Baldwin in 1886 and his master’s degree in 1891.

In the 1890s, Bristow began working as a Kansas editor, buying newspapers in Salina and Ottawa.

He became friends with other Kansas publishers, including the Wichita Beacon’s Henry J. Allen and the Emporia Gazette’s William Allen White.

In 1894, Bristow was elected secretary of the Republican State Committee.

It was at a time when Populists ruled the state and much of the nation in politics. Being Republican wasn’t popular. But Bristow was seen as a progressive Republican. He was viewed favorably by Kansans for his ethics and honesty.

At the turn of the 20th century, Bristow became famous for investigations into postal fraud and embezzlement in Cuba and the U.S.

As the U.S. senator from Kansas, Bristow introduced legislation that led to the 17th Amendment, which allowed for direct election of senators.

He helped provide legislation prohibiting railroads from charging customers – particularly farmers – higher rates for hauling freight shorter distances than if they were shipping longer distances.

He also proposed a women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution. That idea wouldn’t come to pass until 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

And Bristow is also known as providing the inspiration for one of the best-known quotes from the early 20th century. He was giving a speech in the Senate on what the country needed.

Perhaps it may have gone on a bit much. Whatever the case, Vice President Thomas R. Marshall was heard to whisper loud enough for most people in the Senate chamber to hear:

“What this country really needs is a good five-cent cigar.”

Bristow died in 1944 and was buried in Salina’s Gypsum Hill Cemetery.

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