SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — A half-eaten barbecue sandwich sits frozen inside the kitchen refrigerator at Steve Jenne’s home. It’s the other half — or rather, who ate it — that catapulted him to national fame.
Jenne, 74, was a 14-year-old Boy Scout tasked with securing the premises at Wyman Park in Sullivan on September 22nd, 1960, when then-Vice President Richard Nixon stopped to speak at the local Chamber of Commerce just weeks before the 1960 presidential election.
“I was situated right directly behind Mr. Nixon,” Jenne remembered, “and they served him a buffalo barbecue sandwich on a paper plate.”
Illinois was a key battleground state that year, and its 27 electoral votes were a big prize. Nixon was up against the young, dynamic Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, who would bring his campaign through Springfield ten days later.
“I was so impressed that we had the Vice President of the United States in our town of 3,900,” Jenne recalled.
Nixon ate a bite of the sandwich and left it there on the plate before leaving to speak to a crowd that newspaper articles estimated was around 17,000 large.
“Everybody followed Mr. Nixon and his wife, but I stayed there at the picnic table and just gazed down at that half-eaten sandwich, and I looked around,” Jenne said. “Nobody else thought to pick it up. So I thought, ‘Well, I will.’ Picked it up on the paper plate, sandwich and all, hopped on my bicycle and rode a couple miles back home.”
Jenne said his mother wrapped the sandwich remnants in a plastic baggie and stored it inside a glass jar in their freezer. 28 years later, during a presidential election year, a local newspaper reporter found the original story and followed up with Jenne to find out if he still had the frozen memento. When she learned that he had kept it all those years later, she published the story and it wound up getting national attention.
“Her story hit the wire services, including USA Today,” Jenne said from his Springfield home on Tuesday. “Somebody on Johnny Carson’s staff in California read the article, and they’re the ones that contacted me and wanted to know if I’d be interested in being a guest on the show. I said yes and the rest is history.”
Sixty years after he snatched that September sandwich in Sullivan, Jenne and his friends went back and recreated the buffalo barbecue event. Something about reliving the memory of that moment brought Jenne back to a simpler time.
“I tell you, it was small town Americana, where everything is good,” he reminisced. “Forget about politics, forget about red states, blue states, everything else associated with those. I don’t know what the [political] affiliation was with the friends that were there. We sat down, we just had laughs and a good time. We talked about 60 years ago.
“But when I left, I remember saying to the people who were still there, ‘Folks, it was a great, great time. Thanks for everything. Thanks for everything you did to put this together. And I’ll see you all again in 60 years.'”
How does he view the partisan political landscape today?
“You hear a lot about Chicago, and how it should be a separate state. Downstate, in midstate, we’re sort of getting tired of hearing that,” he said, longing for a more unified state led by someone who related to the struggles of the common person.
“Last several governors have been millionaires or billionaires, and a couple have landed in prison,” he said. “Come on, Illinois. We can do better than that. And that’s the impression that I had 60 years ago. We did something clean, reverent, fun, funny. And we pulled it off. And I just wish politicians would really kind of take a sobering look at things and think, ‘Wow, maybe he’s got a point.’ Hey, pay attention to us down here and around here.”
The next time Jenne heard directly from Nixon, it was in 1969 as his Commander-in-Chief. The President signed his papers drafting him to the U.S. Army and sent him to fight in Vietnam.
It’s in moments like those, when leaders make life-or-death decisions, when it might do a politician good to sit down with regular folks and have half a sandwich.