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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 406

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This is the grave of Arthur Flemming.

Born in 1905 in Kingston, New York to a federal judge father, Flemming attended Ohio Wesleyan University and graduated in 1927. He worked as a journalist for a few years and taught at American University before entering the federal government. In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt appointed him to the Civil Service Commission, where he worked until 1948. He became an expert on the modern bureaucracy of the government and a sort of legend of federal bureaucrats. He was named to the Hoover Commission in the late 1940s, that Truman-era initiative to streamline the federal government and then to the second version in the 1950s. He came to greater notice in the 1950s with his work on the Save Our Security commission, one of the many commissions designed to study the future of the Social Security Act over the years. He also started the School of Public Affairs at American University with help from the Roosevelt administration and then was president of Ohio Wesleyan University. In 1948, the Arthur Flemming Award was established to recognize the top federal employees.

Flemming build upon this when Eisenhower named him Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1958. Here was noted for his announcement in the fall of 1959 that the chemical aminotriazole, an herbicide, had been found in the cranberry crop. Aminotriazole had been found to cause cancer in rats. This led to one of the first real pesticide scares in American history, a precursor to Silent Spring, published three years later, that the uncontrolled use of chemicals in our food system without proper testing was a real problem. New England cranberry makers were horrified, strongly rejected Flemming’s statement, and had to undergo a year without sales as cranberries were pulled from the shelves just before Thanksgiving. Flemming said something that would be unimaginable for a Republican today. Facing criticism for hurting the cranberry industry, he said, “I don’t have any right to sit on information of this kind.” It did lead to Ocean Spray, which functionally controlled most of the cranberry bogs even if it didn’t outright own them (though it does own a lot today at least; I drove past a bunch while driving to hike in southeast Massachusetts last weekend), telling growers to stop using the chemical.

However, Flemming would reach a new height in his career after leaving the Cabinet in 1961. He became president of the University of Oregon that year, where among other things that included defending the right of the Communist Party to speak on campus, he spearheaded the funding of Autzen Stadium, where the Ducks play today and where the greatest play in football history took place in 1994, against a certain monstrous sub-human team from Seattle. Let’s watch that play:

Hard to imagine a better legacy than that.

Even while in Eugene, Flemming was on the governing board of the Peace Corps from 1961-68 and the President’s Commission on Labor-Management Policy from 1965-68. After leaving Oregon, he became president of Macalester College in Minnesota from 1968-71. He was U.S. Commissioner on Aging between 1973 and 1978 and Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1974 until 1982, when Reagan fired him. Bill Clinton gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. He died in 1996, at the age of 91.

Arthur Flemming is buried in Montrepose Cemetery, Kingston, New York.

I turn 45 today and what would my birthday be without a grave? I feel old. If you would like to celebrate my birthday by ensuring that this series continues, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Members of the Eisenhower Cabinet are a good choice to support. Ezra Taft Benson is in Whitney, Idaho and Marion Folsom is at Arlington National Cemetery. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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