Remembering the ‘Man from Marshfield’ on the 100th anniversary of his birth
FOR HUB CITY TIMES
MARSHFIELD – Although he was not born in Marshfield, former Wisconsin Congressman and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird made sure anyone who had anything to do with politics in his time knew him as “the man from Marshfield”, including every president since Eisenhower.
Generally, Laird is remembered by most as Richard Nixon’s first Secretary of Defense, charged with ending the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. But before his days at the Pentagon, Laird served nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, where his passions zeroed in on health care and medical research, education and farm issues.
Laird was born on September 1, 1922 in Omaha, Nebraska, where his father – Rev. Melvin Laird Sr. – had accepted the pastorate at Westminster Presbyterian Church following his service in World War I. After four years in Omaha, it was decided the family of five would move back to Helen Connor Laird’s childhood home. Her father bought them a house at 208 S. Cherry Street.
Laird would spend his formative years watching the city develop a zoo and a new swimming pool, while also witnessing the loss of McKinley High School to fire. The new Marshfield Senior High – now Marshfield Middle School – was finished in time for Mel to join its first graduating class in 1940.
While at Carleton College in Northfield, MN, Laird enlisted in the Navy during World War II, and was eventually assigned to serve aboard the USS Maddox in 1944. With several months left to serve, and while assigned as a disbursing officer in Cleveland, OH, Lieutenant Laird received a call from his mother informing him of his father’s sudden death due to a pulmonary embolism following colon cancer surgery. It was March 1946, and Laird Jr. would immediately move back to Marshfield. Five months later, he won a Republican primary for his father’s State Senate seat. Three months after that, Mel – now twenty-four – became the youngest man ever to serve in the Wisconsin Senate. Just six years later, Laird won Wisconsin’s seventh-district congressional seat. Now thirty, Melvin R. Laird Jr. was going to Washington as the youngest Wisconsinite ever elected to Congress.
Mel spent much of his congressional career working on ways to boost the U.S. Military and investing in the nation’s health care infrastructure. He was among the legislators to spearhead efforts that would lead to the creation of the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, and UW-Madison’s Cancer Research Center, not to mention many appropriations that helped grow Marshfield Clinic into a high-profile institution for medical research and education. He is also credited for getting the phrase “one nation under God” inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and was instrumental in making “In God We Trust” the national motto two years later. Laird authored legislation to make sure every elementary school kid had access to milk in their classrooms, was instrumental in saving the Green Bay Packers as an NFL franchise in the 1960s, and advised every presidential administration since the 1950s.
While serving as Secretary of Defense, Laird was responsible for establishing the All-Volunteer Force, meaning the military would no longer draft its soldiers.
Many are unaware that Laird worked behind the scenes to get former President Nixon to choose Gerald Ford as his vice president in the days following the resignation of Spiro Agnew—with the silent expectation that this person would inevitably become the next Commander in Chief. Many of the other players involved tried to talk Mel into accepting the post first, but he declined (meaning that Marshfield came close to being the home of a U.S. President).
In 1997, Marshfield Clinic constructed the Melvin R. Laird Center for Medical Research, which houses a replica of his Reader’s Digest office and historical and personal memorabilia donated by Laird.
Melvin Laird passed away in Florida on November 16, 2016 at the age of 94. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.