Almost forgotten: Hoosier Willkie ran credible presidential race

Wendell Willkie Park features this monument to the 1940 presidential candidate.
Wendell Willkie Park features this monument to the 1940 presidential candidate. Submitted photo

Though many might be tempted to confer the honor on Benjamin Harrison, Wendell L. Willkie is the only native Hoosier ever nominated for president by a major political party. Harrison was from North Bend, Ohio.

Born and raised in Elwood, Willkie was the Republican standard bearer in 1940, securing the nomination on the sixth ballot at the party’s national convention. As of the first ballot, Willkie was in third place behind Thomas Dewey and Robert Taft; loud shouts of “We want Willkie” from the gallery helped turn the tide in what is considered one of the most exciting conventions ever.

Willkie gave Franklin D. Roosevelt his closest race yet, drawing 22.3 million votes. This was more than any GOP presidential candidate had ever received and 5.6 million more than Alf Landon garnered for the Republican Party in 1936. The country was not ready to change leadership with Hitler menacing Europe, and voters returned Roosevelt to office for an unprecedented third term with 27.2 million votes.

Prior to 1940, Willkie enjoyed a distinguished career as a lawyer and politician. He was a civil rights activist and a leading critic of isolationism. In 1943, he published a book of his world travels titled “One World,” which spent four months atop the New York Times bestseller list. In it, Willkie argued forcefully that the United States could not isolate itself from the rest of the world if it wanted a peaceful future.

Willkie died in August 1944 following a heart attack. Until Donald Trump, he was the last nominee of either major party never to have held elected or appointed office.

According to Elwood resident and former Tipton Mayor Dave Berkemeier, whose grandfather operated a farm owned by Willkie, “It was a great day for Elwood when Willkie accepted the Republican nomination. More than 250,000 people crammed into Elwood’s Callaway Park to hear his acceptance speech.”

Berkemeier and Marcy Fry, the Elwood Chamber of Commerce executive director, both lament that there is little left in Willkie’s hometown of about 8,500 people to commemorate its illustrious citizen. “There is not even a street named after him or a sign at the town entrance,” Fry said.

The local high school was named Wendell L. Willkie High School, but after it burned to the ground in 1988, the new high school was simply named Elwood Community High School. Two of Willkie’s former Elwood homes are still standing, but neither bears any Willkie designation.

A small Wendell L. Willkie Park, two archways and two plaques at Callaway Park are the primary remembrances in Elwood of Willkie today.

Fry suggests that Willkie’s relationship with Elwood frayed when he failed to carry either Elwood or Madison County in the 1940 election. These were historically Democratic areas, which perhaps did not look kindly on Willkie’s switching allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in the late 1930s based on his belief that large federal projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority infringed on the private-enterprise system.

Willkie was reportedly angry that his county did not show him more loyalty and spent most of the rest of his life on a farm he owned in his wife’s hometown of Rushville, where he is buried at East Hill Cemetery.

If you go

Wendell Willkie Park, a memorial to the unsuccessful presidential nominee, is at the intersection of State Road 13 and North E Street in Elwood.

Callaway Park, where Willkie accepted the presidential nomination, is at 1135 N. 19th Street in Elwood.

The largest public collection of Willkie memorabilia is in the Rush County Historical Society Museum, located at 619 N. Perkins St. in Rushville.

This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to