Paul Bengston never got to meet Hubert Humphrey -- not in person, anyway. But the acquaintance he's forged with the Happy Warrior through campaign buttons, political posters, tickets to DFL bean feeds and the odd key chain has, in a way, been as personal.
Bengston has many of the Christmas cards Humphrey sent over the years, whether as mayor of Minneapolis, senator from Minnesota or vice president of the United States. But he's always on the lookout for more holiday greetings, especially from the mayoral years. "Christmas cards I will chase," said Bengston, whose collection is among the largest troves about Hubert Horatio Humphrey.
May 27 is the 100th anniversary of HHH's birth, and the range of his more than three decades in politics is clearly and artistically evident in his many campaigns. From a mid-1940s photo of a horse-drawn carriage festooned with "Humphrey for Mayor" posters to a button from the 1960s with the psychedelic graphics of Peter Max, Humphrey's campaign trail doubles as a history lesson.
As is often the case, Bengston didn't realize that he was actually collecting when he began. He remembers buying his first button in 1968, when he was 7, "and my parents dragged myself and my two brothers out to Waverly, Minn.," he said. "A presidential candidate was going to speak on the steps of the town hall."
The button that started it all
Maybe his dad remembers what Humphrey said. What caught Bengston's eye was all the campaign buttons, "and I spent my allowance on one." A few months later at the State Fair, he picked up proffered buttons from all the campaign booths. He pinned them on the curtains in his bedroom, but still never considered himself a collector.
"On vacations, Dad would let me go into antique shops to look for buttons," he said. "I think he saw they were a good way to learn history." Bengston's interest flagged as a teenager but picked up later; today he has more than 1,200 Humphrey buttons and hundreds of other pieces of Humphrey memorabilia -- all part of more than 30,000 items he has from all walks of American political life dating back to 1840.
"This hobby has been much bigger than I ever dreamed it would be," said Bengston, who lives in Eden Prairie and owns Cooperative Print Solutions in Minneapolis. Not that it's necessarily a lucrative hobby. While he keeps his most valuable pieces in a safe deposit box, "most buttons are under 10 bucks," he said.
People often offer to sell him something that Humphrey signed, "thinking it's valuable because it has his name," he said. "But he was alive for a long time, and he was politically active for a long time, and he signed a lot of stuff."
The greater value of Bengston's collection has come in the memories that accompany the acquisitions. "When you meet people who met him over the years, they all tell the same story," he said. They'd have met Humphrey and chatted about something trivial, like their cabin at the lake, or what their kids do. "Then they'd see him a year later and he'd ask how the fishing was at ... and he'd name the lake -- or ask how 'that Jerry of yours' is doing these days. It just blew people away. He had a photographic memory."
A force for civil rights
Bengston's array of items illuminates a pivotal moment in Minnesota history in 1944, when Humphrey was the force behind merging the Minnesota Democrats with the Farmer-Labor Party. The DFL website says many consider him "the founder of Minnesota DFL Party," and buttons from that era urged voters to "Unite With Humphrey."
But Humphrey played an even more pivotal role in national politics four years later when he spoke to the 1948 Democratic National Convention, where a civil rights plank in the party platform threatened to split the party. The plank sought a federal law against lynching, an end to legalized school segregation in the South and a ban on job discrimination based on skin color. Many knew it was the right thing to do, but support was tepid.
Humphrey, in a legendary speech, said that "the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadows of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." The plank was narrowly adopted, prompting many Southerners to walk out of the convention. His image as a decent man was solidified and buttons over the years would proclaim, "Who But Hubert," "Hope Happiness Humphrey" and "Hurry Humphrey Help US."
Besides the buttons, Bengston has press passes, invitations, a book of Muriel Humphrey's favorite recipes, an oversized key to some city and more. And there's more to find. Every morning, he checks the "Humphrey" category on eBay, and he is a member of the American Political Items Collectors. He figures there are 40 buttons that he doesn't have.
Anyone with an "Alaskans for Humphrey" button? He'd like to hear from you.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185