Former US Congressman Paul Findley owns up to his ‘hopelessly irresponsible’ act (half a decade ago) when he lost a national treasure – an item famously used by President Abraham Lincoln. Fortunately this story has a happy ending...
One Friday evening in late summer of 1962 - fifty years ago - I committed a massive act of personal neglect that any politician would dread. I lost a precious national heirloom in full public view.
With the centennial anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation approaching, the National Park Service gave me the privilege of carrying the inkwell Lincoln used to a sign the document when I traveled from Capitol Hill to the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield where the ceremony would occur. I report this ‘long ago item’, because the 150th anniversary will be observed this weekend in Springfield.
Deplaning at St. Louis airport the evening before the ceremony, I carried my suitcase in one hand, the inkwell carton in the other. The carton contained no identification of its content. I had special interest in the inkwell, because a young Pittsfield man, John George Nicolay, Lincoln’s principal private secretary, dipped a pen in the inkwell before handing it to the president for the Proclamation signature. Lincoln called that signature the most memorable act of his presidency.
I welcomed custody of the inkwell, believing anything connected with Lincoln would produce good publicity, of which I stood in great need. I was in my first term as a Member of Congress, and signs suggested it would be my last. Redistricting had placed me in a new district, a large part of which was long and ably represented by Congressman Peter Mack of Carlinville, my opponent for reelection. Election day was three months ahead.
At the airport, I stopped at a pay phone to call my wife Lucille, who was waiting for me at our Pittsfield home. I would drive to Pittsfield to spend the night before proceeding the next morning to Springfield for the Proclamation ceremony. Before making the call, I placed the boxed inkwell on the shelf by the phone. When I hung up, I picked up my bag and forgot to retrieve the inkwell. Halfway to the parking garage, I realized my oversight and raced back. The box was gone!
Frantic, I vainly called the airport lost-and-found, examined waste bins throughout the airport - even on the tarmac - and had grim thoughts about how Rep. Mack would be able to describe me as ‘hopelessly irresponsible’. I called police and asked them to notify TV and radio stations. Deeply shaken, I drove my campaign van to Pittsfield where I tried to sleep.
Meanwhile, a miracle occurred in St. Louis. That evening, a teenage member of an African-American family found the inkwell box and brought it home. He often checked airport pay phones for left coins. After showing the inkwell to his father, he went to bed. When his father learned from late night television news of the lost inkwell, he quickly reported his son’s find to the police. How appropriate: an African- American rescued the Emancipation Inkwell from the likely fate of oblivion or a scrap bin.
At 1:30 a.m., police called the good news to Lucille and me, then delivered the inkwell the next morning to officials at the Lincoln Tomb. When the ceremony was over, I was content to leave the inkwell in the custody of National Park Service officials for its return trip to a museum in Washington. To my knowledge, Rep. Mack made no reference to my negligence or to my good fortune.
How could I be so lucky? The odds against quick recovery of the inkwell were surely as great as those in the recent Super Lottery, and I was reelected in November despite my well-publicized inexcusable neglect.
Paul Findley served in Congress and resides in Jacksonville, Illinois. Among his awards are the Logan Hay Medal from the Abraham Lincoln Association and the Lincoln Laureate degree. He is the author of ‘A. Lincoln: The Crucible of Congress’.