On Jan. 13, 1978, Hubert H. Humphrey died after a bout with cancer. It was Friday the 13th.

Known as the "Happy Warrior," Humphrey had been a Vice President of the United States, a senator from Minnesota and, early in his career, a tough, crusading Mayor of Minneapolis. By the time of his death, he was one of the state's most beloved men.

After a difficult struggle wherein Humphrey, according to his friend and protégé Walter Mondale, "taught us how to die,” this Happy Warrior slipped away quietly just as a pall was settling over the state. It was the darkest, coldest time of year in Minnesota.

I remember this about bidding Humphrey goodbye on a frigid night in 1978:

Sunday, Jan. 15 dawned cold (subzero with light snow at sunrise) and remained cold. Winter had begun in earnest two weeks earlier when the Cowboys crushed the Vikings in Dallas 23-6 in the National Football Conference Championship.

I remember struggling as best as I could to watch as the Dallas “Doomsday Defense” ravaged Denver in the first prime-time Super Bowl. But my heart just wasn’t in it. There was somewhere else I needed to be.

Determined to make it to the Capitol to pay my last respects to Humphrey, I shambled out of my West Bank apartment and into the face of a shoulder-scrunching night. I didn't even take time to warm up my old blue Chevy II. Thankfully, it started, but not without strain.

I sputtered off at about 8:30 p.m., revving the engine for the first few blocks. I remained hunched forward at the wheel, shivering while watching my breath stream across the interior and frost the windshield.

Noting unusually heavy traffic near the Capitol, I parked my faltering car in the old Sears parking lot about a half-mile from the Capitol. I made sure the car was facing south, out of the wind, clinging to the folk wisdom that this would help it start again.

Then I trudged into the dark night.

Soon the Capitol came into view through the narrow slit between my scarf and stocking cap. I noticed the building was highlighted by the usual floodlights, but now there was the eerie presence of television lights and even some spotlights scanning back and forth across a massive crowd.

It was a chaotic scene: Not so much a line but a sea of humanity edging slowly toward the Capitol's doors. I didn't know where to stand. So I assumed a position far from the building. I presumed it would take hours to work my way inside.

Fortunately the crowd itself -- thousands of bodies packed tightly together -- provided some relief from the cold, especially from the numbing effects of the wind. Somehow that seemed fitting.

Even in the midst of the warming crowd, however, there was suffering enough to go around. The frigid air still played cruel tricks on the fingers, faces and feet.

But I was on a pilgrimage, as so many were that frozen night, and I was determined to see it through. I was willing to risk frostbite to my numb and lumpy toes, which were crammed into pack boots with rather ravaged felt liners.

During the snail’s pace advance toward the distant doors, I had begun to follow, with great interest, the plight of an old man who at times stood directly in front of me. He was dressed in a long, camel-colored woolen overcoat and a stiff-brimmed cap with earflaps. The short, hunched over old-timer was in obvious misery, complaining continually about the cold and his need to get inside.

At one point a fellow in the crowd -- a tall, burly man in a bulky grey parka with a snorkel hood and with a bit of good cheer on his breath -- gave the sufferer a big bear hug and began rubbing his back vigorously.

“Stomp your feet pops,” someone cried.

“You can make it,” urged a woman in a puffy ski jacket, her voice muffled by her scarf.

The caring and concern demonstrated by the crowd inspired the sufferer to press on, despite his growing agony. He trudged along with the rest of us. At times by virtue of his own willpower and other times buoyed by the efforts of others, he made it to the steps of the Capitol.

Once there, he tossed back his head to gaze at the beautiful illuminated dome.

Just then, part of the crowd started singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

The man smiled broadly and now, with his breath curling into the night sky, said: “Hey ... I’m gonna’ make it.”

At that, a number of those nearby broke into mitten-muffled applause. Feeling tears building, I quickly wiped my eyes on the cold, leather backs of my choppers. I had an urge to bend over and kiss the old man on the top of his cap, but I did not.

Instead I stomped my feet on the welcome steps, tucked my fists a bit deeper into my armpits and smiled.

This must be the warmest cold place on Earth, I thought as I finally reached the doors of a building bathed in glorious light, on a night of great sadness, under a clear and sparkling sky that held one bright new star.

 

St. Louis Park native David Paul McDaniel earned his B.A. in history from the University of Minnesota. He teaches U.S. history at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He lives in Waukesha, Wis., with his wife Kristen and son John.