The following is an excerpt from “Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy” by Larry Tye. For more information and to purchase, visit https://larrytye.com/books/
Also, see a WisPolitics.com interview with Tye below.
Senator Joe McCarthy’s college career reportedly started with a white lie.
He knew there was just one school for him, Marquette University, which was run by the Society of Jesus, was in the core of Wisconsin’s biggest, most vibrant city, and promised not just a good education but an affordable one. The Milwaukee college looked especially attractive in 1930, when it was spiffing up for its Golden Jubilee. With his top grades at Manawa’s Little Wolf High School and glowing recommendations, there was only one obvious impediment: a question on the application asking, “Did you attend four years of high school?” The answer, in Joe’s case, was an uncomplicated no. The response on his application, however, was yes.
Or so said Leo Hershberger, the Little Wolf principal, in a story repeated over the decades by esteemed biographers and respected journalists. At first, Hershberger fingered Joe as the one who fudged. Later versions had it that the principal did it on McCarthy’s behalf – leaving blank that critical question, saying Joe had done “four years work,” or answering yes and instructing Joe to keep it secret “until after you’ve completed the first quarter and shown that you can do the work.” There are two holes in those narratives, which have been used to blacken Joe’s college career. First, there was no actual application question asking whether he had completed four years of high school. And second, the “certificate of graduation” form that Hershberger signed said specifically that Joe had attended Little Wolf from September 1929 to June 1930, which was a single academic year.
Further confirmation that Marquette knew from the start Joe’s four-years-in-one high school background came 23 years later, in a letter from George E. Vander Beke, Marquette’s registrar and director of admissions. McCarthy’s dusty admissions files showed that the then-senator had “completed 16 units of high school work by attending the Little Wolf High School for 1 year and earning most of his work by correspondence.” The registrar continued, “It is likely that Mr. McCarthy was admitted on Adult Special basis since he was 22 years old at the time of his enrollment. This means that he had 2 years to prove himself capable of carrying college work before being accepted as a candidate for a degree.” The letter concluded, “Mr. McCarthy was a good student while attending Marquette University.”
Hershberger isn’t alive to explain whether he was misquoted, he misremembered, or he intentionally skewed the facts. The first explanation seems unlikely, given how many writers said the same thing, on the basis of independent interviews. The last seems equally implausible, since Hershberger took such pride in his star student and, elsewhere in those interviews, did all he could to strike down other misconceptions about Joe’s time at Little Wolf. Most probably he remembered incorrectly the events that he didn’t start recounting until he was in his 60s, 20 years after Joe’s graduation, and that he continued recollecing, with modifications, into his mid-80s. That his warm feelings for Joe were reciprocated became clear years later when Senator McCarthy gave his former principal a fountain pen set inscribed, “TO L.D. HERSHBERGER The Father of McCarthyism.” Whatever the truth, the result was to give lethal ammunition to Joe’s enemies.
That’s not to say that Joe McCarthy’s early life was any less rife with embellishments and outright myth-making than a career that would turn his name into an ism, one that stood for reckless accusation and fear-mongering. But in this case as others, a stash of files made available to this author by Marquette and the McCarthy family help clarify not just that Joe was telling the truth but that his high-school-to-college story was worthy of legend.
When he graduated from the eighth grade, the farm-bred McCarthy decided that high school could wait. Instead, he built from scratch a chicken farm that, within a year, had poultry magazines touting the 16-year-old as the boy tycoon of the chicken kingdom. By 18, his realm had grown to 2,000 hens and 10,000 broilers, along with a fixer-upper truck to cart his eggs to stores in the Fox River Valley and his birds all the way to Chicago. Two years later, when an intestinal parasite ravaged his flock, he took his entrepreneurial skills to Cashway, a local chain of groceries, first as a clerk at its Appleton store, which used to buy his eggs, then 30 miles east to the smaller community of Manawa where Joe was named store manager. A mere two months into the job, Joe had the largest sales volume of Cashway’s 29 stores even though his was the smallest.
He was savvy enough, however, to understand the limits of where Cashway could take him and the expediency of going back to school, the way his parents had hoped. His plan was to try to make it through high school in just two years, then try for college. “The age differences between the freshmen and myself caused me to plan to get it over quickly,” he explained matter-of-factly. At the ripe age of 20 in the fall of 1929, he convinced Hershberger, the principal at Little Wolf High, to let him try. A new system let kids work at their own pace, the way he’d gotten used to at Underhill, the single-room schoolhouse he’d attended in Grand Chute. Students could decide how high they wanted to reach, with the most difficult assignments giving them a chance at an A and the easiest earning at most a C. Passing oral and written exams let them move to the next subject. Three weeks in, Joe was so far ahead he was excused from the classroom and allowed to work on his own. He was up at 5:00 a.m., put in 12-hour days six days a week, and was back at the books on Sundays after church. It paid off: by Thanksgiving he was a sophomore, by mid-year a junior, and by Easter he was doing the work of a senior and proving that even his ambitious two-year plan wasn’t bullish enough. “The teachers were swell,” he said, “and gave me special instruction after school, and at noon, and at night.”
His return to school cost him his job at Cashway, but he earned money as an usher at a local movie house. He also taught boxing for an hour a day until the younger kids learned how hard he could punch. He ran, hiked, and played basketball. His freshman classmates elected him vice-president, even though he was with them for just a quarter of their year and was seven years older than most. The junior class nominated him as Manawa’s “most loveable man.” By the end he was a legitimate city celebrity and his comings and goings made it not only into the local newspaper but onto the front page. The Milwaukee Journal also took notice of the lovable four-years-in-one whiz kid, noting that he “enlisted the support of the school’s entire teaching staff” and that “the youth’s records indicate that he didn’t ‘fall down.’”
His records indicated a lot more than that. He made the honor roll with grades that were, on average, just over 90. He scored an “excellent” in school citizenship. Hershberger wrote in the remarks section of Joe’s permanent file that “he did not pass off subjects by exams. He waded through and actually covered the work by will power, unusual ability, and concentrated work!!” His Little Wolf records also show him scoring an off-the-chart 205 on a Terman IQ test, which would be high in the genius range if it was using the conventional scale.
What his transcript couldn’t reveal was the price he paid by hotfooting it through. There was no time for art or music, writing for the school newspaper or trying out for theater productions. The manic cramming he did in study hall let him finish his courses but left little time for just hanging out with fellow students – or with teachers . High school is where young people can learn to think rigorously, write creatively, make social connections, and work out their identities in ways that help them navigate the world. But that would have taken time Joe didn’t have.
To Hershberger, what mattered wasn’t what he missed but all that he managed. “We kept telling the teachers, ‘Don’t baby him. Don’t help him more than you have to but make him earn what he’s got,’” said the principal, who made his prodigal pupil the centerpiece of the 1930 graduation ceremony as the proud McCarthy clan looked on. “Joe in one year did more real honest to goodness work . . . than the average person does in four.” Was he ready to graduate? The educator of forty-six years didn’t hesitate, pronouncing Joe “the most ready for college [of any student] I ever had.” No part of his youth would be mythologized more than his high school year, and yet this McCarthy feat was grounded in facts. He was, in Hershberger’s words, “the irresistible force who overcame the immovable object” and “a true American.”