CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Ed Turner stepped into the elevator in San Francisco and struck up a conversation with a fellow rider. The stranger inquired, and Turner told him his hometown: Chillicothe, Missouri.
“You wouldn’t have happened to know a guy named Litton?” the man asked.
Turner knew Jerry Litton, had roomed with him at the University of Missouri, had served as the chief of staff of his congressional office, had walked with trepidation down a hotel hallway to tell Litton’s parent’s that their only son had been killed in a plane crash 40 years ago this Wednesday.
But Turner merely told this man, “Yeah, I knew him.”
The Chillicothe man never got the guy’s name. But Turner remembers what he said: “Don’t you think he would have been president?”
How many times has he heard something like this? Never a month passes, even four decades later.
Jerry Litton had that thing about him. Charisma. Energy. Self-confidence. Unequaled communication skills. A “burning in his gut” to make a difference.
He seemed equally at ease talking to a banker in a $1,000 suit and a rancher with manure on his boots.
Elected twice to represent Northwest Missouri in the U.S. House, Litton sought the Democratic nomination for an open seat in the Senate. Improbably, he beat, by a good margin, two men more tied to the party establishment, a former governor and the retiring senator’s son.
With victory at hand that primary night, Aug. 3, 1976, he climbed aboard a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron at the Chillicothe Municipal Airport, en route to a celebration at a Kansas City hotel.
His wife, Sharon, and their two children, Linda and Scott, would fly, too, ready to witness this moment of triumph. A long-time friend, Paul Rupp Jr., sat in the pilot’s seat with his son, Paul III, alongside.
The National Transportation Safety Board would find that a broken crankshaft had caused the left engine to fail during takeoff.
Full of fuel, the Baron became an inferno on crashing. No one on board survived.
Missouri has had one homegrown resident serve as a U.S. president. When a younger Jerry Litton served as a state and national officer for the Future Farmers of America, he had his picture taken with Harry Truman.
Following in Harry’s footsteps, everyone figured. But after that night in 1976, Chillicothe was left to wonder what might have been.
‘Like a magnet’
Chuck Haney, the mayor of Chillicothe, has lunch at the Boji Stone Cafe and can’t get two bites down without someone stopping by to say hello. He knows everyone, greets everyone.
A long-time newspaperman, now with a local radio show, he finds the current state of politics a mess. Too much partisanship. Too much venom.
“My golly,” he said, “to have a guy like Jerry Litton lead our country would be amazing.”
Haney graduated from Chillicothe High School alongside Litton, Class of 1955. He remembers Jerry coming to the school his freshman year, having grown up in Lock Springs, in nearby Daviess County.
If Litton had any shyness in coming to a new school, he shed it quickly. And the lessons he picked up in FFA, in public speaking and in animal husbandry, would serve him in later years.
“He was like a magnet,” Haney said. “And he was a real worker.”
Turner, from St. Joseph, would be an Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity brother with Litton in Columbia, and the two reconnected when he took a job in Chillicothe in 1966. His classmate had found success at the Litton Charolais Ranch, selling purebred cattle throughout the United States and internationally.
When Litton decided to run for Congress in 1972, he asked Turner to be his Livingston County campaign chairman. Then to run his campaign in all 27 counties of the 6th District.
“It was boots on the ground, knocking on doors,” Turner said. “I worked days and ran the campaign nights and weekends, and got very little sleep.”
Litton beat Republican Russ Sloan, and then he asked Turner to go to Washington with him as his chief of staff. Turner described their arrival as “two farm boys from Missouri” at offices with no furniture and no staff and with no idea about where to start.
“I told him, ‘Jerry, we’ve got a mountain to climb here. You won’t believe what we’ve got to do,’” Turner recalled. “He said, ‘Let me tell you, we may not be smarter than these people here, but we sure as hell can outwork them.’”
So, the work commenced. And Litton’s approach was to work both sides of the partisan divide.
“I don’t think he paid attention to parties,” Bonnie Mitchell, a Chillicothe resident who served as his personal assistant, said last week. “It wasn’t divided along those hard lines like they are now.”
Robert Macy, a reporter from the Associated Press who covered Litton in his Senate bid, found him to be a rare politician.
“You had to be told, or you read someplace, that he was a Democrat. He wasn’t this type of person that wore the party label on their vest,” he said. “He was the type of politician and the type of person that fit in well with presidents or the farmer down the road. And equally liked by both of them.”
Because of this, Litton, one of 435 members on the House, saw his star almost instantly in ascent. And it helped him attract guests to a television show he began in 1974, “Dialogue with Litton.”
Litton, it seemed, carried index cards wherever he went, jotting down ideas. “The whole staff would live in fear of long flights because we’d have index cards full of to-dos,” Turner said. One card said simply, “Bring government back to Missouri.”
The congressman wanted his constituents to see people as real humans willing to answer their questions. So the television show began, eventually to be carried by a dozen television stations in Missouri, Kansas and Illinois.
The guests included former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and future President Jimmy Carter. Also, high-profile figures like Reps. Carl Albert, Tip O’Neill and Shirley Chisholm.
They gathered in a hotel ballroom in Kansas City, an in-the-round setting with questions coming from every direction.
Litton’s appeal grew as these shows found an audience. Some home-spun humor helped.
On one show, Humphrey talked about the popularity of an agriculture bill. “We had 100 congressmen at the head table that day,” Litton replied. “I haven’t seen that many congressmen together since the pay raise vote.”
Primary night in 1976 found Haney in his accustomed spot, at the Livingston County Courthouse covering local returns.
Word began to spread about the plane crash a few miles southeast. Then the reality set in. This favorite son of Chillicothe, on the night of his huge victory, had been lost.
“It was a silent community, a stunned community. They just couldn’t believe what had happened, that an entire family had been wiped out … and two persons from another family,” the newsman said. “It was a very grave scene and very somber.”
Mitchell still recalls the emotions of those first hours.
“It was a terrible shock,” she said. “Everyone was stunned … it couldn’t be true.”
Macy would drive to Chillicothe that night to cover news of the crash, then return subsequently to cover the funeral of the Litton family.
“I’ve never seen a town that was so devastated by something,” he remembered.
Over the course of a 30-year career with the Associated Press, Macy, now retired in Las Vegas, produced about 11,000 bylined stories, including his coverage of the Hyatt skywalk collapse in Kansas City. Of the Litton death and funeral, though, he said, “It was one of the hardest stories I’ve ever done.”
The question remains about how far Litton could have climbed. Could he have been a U.S. president?
Timing, Turner said, is everything. And plenty of qualified individuals did not become president because of the wrong timing.
But of the things that potential candidates can control — desire, intellectual ability, communication skills, common sense — Litton had no flaws.
“He had an unbelievable opportunity to make the grade. Who knows what come have happened?” Turner said. “He had every quality necessary to fit that profile.”
Fate intervened, and cruelly. Forty years later, people of Chillicothe still wonder.