Whiskey and Watermelons: Anecdotes from the Johnston Years

Recently, we started a cataloging project for our oral histories. The transcripts have been available on the SCPC website, but we wanted to incorporate them into the university library catalog. Before we can do anything else, we have to read through the oral histories and make a note of potential subject headings. This also gives us an opportunity to better acquaint ourselves with a fascinating part of our collections.

I’ve most enjoyed coming across behind-the-scenes political anecdotes in these interviews. They enliven the historical narrative by adding a personal dimension to the records of public figures. So far, my favorite oral history has been that of Thomas W. Chadwick, a member of Sen. Olin Johnston’s staff from 1955-1965. Chadwick recalled a number of entertaining stories from his years with the senator.

Chadwick remembered Johnston receiving gifts of whiskey from a friend in the liquor distribution business. This posed a dilemma for the senator. Johnston did not drink, but having lived through the Depression, he also did not waste anything. So, he solved the problem by giving away whiskey to staff members. One fine day, the senator called Chadwick into his office. He pulled a bottle of bourbon out of his safe and said, “I want you to take that bottle of whiskey and use it, but I want you to give Betty Rose [Chadwick’s wife], you give her what you’d have paid at the liquor store for that bottle. And then I know something good will be coming out of that.”

Speaking of gifts, Johnston regularly brought in watermelon from S.C. and gave it to journalists on the Hill. During one delivery, Johnston was standing by the fruit truck for a photo. Hoping to cash in on the publicity, Sen. Strom Thurmond came running down the steps and crashed the picture. Johnston was livid and said there would be no more watermelon if any paper ran the picture with Thurmond. One reporter protested, saying that Thurmond was there after all. Chadwick retorted, “So you go to him for watermelon, if you want watermelon out of this deal. You go to Strom for them.”

Clearly, Johnston was a man with little tolerance for rude behavior. During the Eisenhower administration, the nominee for the Myrtle Beach postmastership made some unkind public remarks about Johnston. The senator was chair of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee. He approached a close friend, Sen. Frank Carlson (R-Kansas), and said, “Frank, this man is personally obnoxious to me, and I want the White House to withdraw the nomination.” As further incentive, Johnston threatened to hold up pending pay raises for executive and judicial positions. Carlson came back and asked, “Who do you want?” Johnston gave him the name and resume of his preferred nominee, and they flew the paperwork to the president in Pennsylvania. Eisenhower signed the nomination while on the golf course and sent it back.

Find these and other stories at http://library.sc.edu/scpc/ohchadwick.pdf. Once you’ve finished reading about Chadwick and Johnston, check out the rest of our oral histories at http://library.sc.edu/scpc/oralhist.html.

Contributed by graduate student assistant Chris Fite

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