The Lester Hunt Lesson

By Cale Case

On Saturday morning, June 19, 1954, Wyoming’s Junior U.S. Senator, Lester Callaway Hunt, entered the Senate Office Building in Washington D.C. He carried a .22-caliber rifle partly tucked under his coat, made small talk with the security doorman, went upstairs to his office and shot himself—a telling repeat of his brother’s suicide two years earlier. He was still alive when a staff member arrived. At age 61, Sen. Hunt died a few hours later at Casualty Hospital.

Lester Hunt never lost an election. He served in the Wyoming Legislature, was twice elected secretary of state and twice elected governor before moving on to the U.S. Senate. This portrait is from 1940, during his second term as secretary of state. American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The news was devastating. On the Monday following, both houses of Congress met separately, offered prayer, approved courtesy resolutions and appointed members to attend the funeral, then adjourned out of respect for their distinguished colleague. A military escort placed Sen. Hunt’s remains in a United States Air Force plane and flew to Wyoming’s capital, Cheyenne. They were escorted by another U.S. Air Force Constellation passenger plane carrying members of both houses of Congress as well as dignitaries from the Eisenhower administration.

An honor guard received Sen. Hunt’s body when it arrived in Cheyenne. All state offices were shuttered Tuesday morning when the honor guard carried Hunt’s body into the Capitol to lie in state. The public and Wyoming state employees and officials respectfully filed past the casket. As the funeral procession moved from the Capitol to Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, a formation of eight Air Force jets roared overhead in tribute. The funeral service was brief and somber. Thousands of citizens quietly lined the streets as the cortege passed by on the way to Beth El Cemetery north of Pershing Avenue in central Cheyenne. A short graveside service was held, and Sen. Lester Callaway Hunt was laid to rest. (My father, George H. Case, was there. He was a friend and an honorary pallbearer.)

Back home in Wyoming, very little was known about the complex circumstances surrounding Sen. Hunt's untimely death, partly because the friendly news establishment chose to protect the privacy of his family and his legacy of a distinguished career in public service.

Lester C. Hunt came to Wyoming in 1911 to play semi-professional baseball for a Lander team. In 1917, he returned to Lander to establish his dental practice and rear his family. Hunt actively served in World War I as a first lieutenant, captain and major in the United States Army Dental Corps from 1917 to 1919 and was a major in the Army Reserve from 1919 to 1954. His career in public service began with election to the Wyoming House of Representatives in 1933, serving Fremont County. He was then chosen to be Wyoming secretary of state from 1935 to 1943, followed by election to two consecutive terms as governor of Wyoming, holding office in the difficult years during and after World War II.

In addition to managing wartime concerns and logistics, Gov. Hunt's many achievements included the implementation of a pension system for teachers and advocacy for a pension system for state employees, as well as expanded systems of health benefits. During his exemplary years of accomplishment as secretary of state, he obtained a copyright to preserve the mark of the bucking horse and rider and developed and implemented plans for the bucking horse and rider license plate, first issued in 1936.

As Wyoming's accomplished junior U.S. senator from 1949 to 1954, Lester C. Hunt served on congressional committees including the Senate Armed Services Committee, a special Senate Committee investigating war crimes, and the Special Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. Democratic Sen. Hunt supported various federal social programs proposed by the Eisenhower Administration and advocated for federal support of low-cost health and dental insurance policies. He offered strong support for the expansion of Social Security, and the abolition of racial segregation in the District of Columbia.

Through Senate hearings, Lester Hunt was introduced to the bullying and false accusation tactics of Sen. Joseph Raymond McCarthy of Wisconsin, and his followers. The months prior to Sen. Hunt's death had been extremely difficult for him, personally and politically. It was the height of Sen. Joe McCarthy's influence and popularity. The United States Senate was at a knife-edge balance in an election year, with 48 Democrats, 47 Republicans, and one independent member. Just over a year earlier, Sen. Hunt's son, Lester Jr., known as “Buddy”, had been arrested for soliciting sex from a male undercover policeman in Washington's Lafayette Park. The original charges against Buddy Hunt had been dropped, but due to pressure from McCarthy's radical Republican faction, the charges were refiled. The Hunts supported their son and were present in court when he was convicted of a misdemeanor and fined $100.

Hunt and McCarthy had clashed previously over the reckless and unwarranted attacks and the conduct of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The first-term Wyoming Sen. Hunt stood his ground, which made him a McCarthy target. McCarthy’s extremist followers threatened that unless Hunt chose not to run for reelection, they would expose the story of his son's conviction to every household in Wyoming through a mailed political hit piece.

The lessons of 1954 are powerful. The scenario was an extremely important upcoming election in a divided democracy. The overwhelming popularity of the bombastic leadership and fiery rhetoric of Sen. Joseph McCarthy played on peoples’ fears and influenced them to support his extreme positions on the supposed widespread communist infiltration of the government, the military, the entertainment industry, the arts community, and educational institutions. McCarthy was the “rock star”, extremely popular, even viewed by some as the potential savior of our nation. The perceived danger of homosexuality, a taboo societal subject, was part of the McCarthy message. Suicide was also a forbidden topic and usually considered a moral weakness. Consequently, the complicated story of Sen. Lester Hunt’s suicide was generally unknown in Wyoming.

The body of U.S. Sen. Lester Hunt lies in state in the rotunda of the Wyoming State Capitol, June 1954. Wyoming State Archives.

We are in a better place today with a more open understanding of suicide and a better tolerance of same-sex relationships. We know that, given a culmination of setbacks, pain and disappointment, anyone could begin to believe that the world would be better off without him or her. It is this terrible conclusion that can wreck the lives that touch that person. Wyoming ranks among the worst in the nation for the number of suicides each year per capita, but we are beginning to do a better job. We have a Wyoming-specific suicide hotline and there are trained people to help. If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, please call 988. We want you to live.

We are not doing a better job in the political world. Echoing 1954, we have become polarized and intolerant of people who think differently from us. We have stooped to calling opponents dehumanizing names. We have lost our ability to find middle ground and tolerate opposition. We do not respect our political institutions. As in 1954, Congress is divided. The U.S. Senate has a close margin, and we are on the eve of another national election.

Ten days before he committed suicide and the day after Senator Hunt announced that he would not run for reelection, June 9, 1954, marked the 30th day of McCarthy’s investigation into the U.S. Army in televised congressional hearings. That day, Joe McCarthy attacked a junior member of the civilian firm defending the Army by alleging that he had communist sympathies. Attorney Joseph Welch responded: "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness." When McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch angrily interrupted, "Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?"

That event, and the loss of our own dear Senator, began to unravel Joe McCarthy's dynasty. Later that year, the Senate took the rare step of voting to censure Sen. McCarthy. The vote was 67-22. Joe McCarthy began to fade from the American stage, and the nation moved on.

This 70th anniversary of Sen. Lester Callaway Hunt’s death is an historic opportunity for us to remember the lessons of his life and death and a nation divided.

[Wyoming State Sen. Cale Case represents Senate District 25 in Fremont County.]

Read Baseball, Politics, Triumph and Tragedy: The Career of Lester Hunt