EVERETT — Nearly 70 years later, Larry O’Donnell remembers the day well.
He and his dad made their way to the train station in downtown Everett.
O’Donnell was 10 or thereabouts. It was crowded, 5,000 strong, according to one account, and the adults towered over him.
His father hoisted him onto his shoulders so he could see the bespectacled figure emerge from the back of the train shortly before 8 p.m.
For President Harry Truman, the June 9, 1948, speech in Everett was just another whistle-stop. His day began in Spokane and also took him to Ephrata, Wenatchee, Skykomish and Olympia.
With the president was Washington Gov. Monrad “Mon” Wallgren, who’d grown up in Everett and served with Truman in the U.S. Senate. They were more than colleagues; they were friends. Truman had visited him in Everett twice before he became president.
Truman spoke on a number of topics: efforts to harness power from the Columbia River, what a fine job Wallgren’s parents had done in raising him and America’s role after World War II.
“We are rated as the greatest and most powerful nation in the world,” Truman said that Wednesday evening. “We want to use that greatness and that power for the welfare of the world, just as we did for the welfare of the 48 states of the Union. And that can be done and we must do it!”
O’Donnell recalls local dignitaries giving Truman a fishing rod and reel as well as a special shirt. The oratory from that day has long faded from the mind of the man who once was a boy on his dad’s shoulders.
“I just remember as a kid being really impressed that I got to see the president,” O’Donnell said. “That was a big deal.”
Monday is Presidents’ Day, an opportunity to brush up on local history from those fleeting instances when the nation’s leaders found their way to Snohomish County. Local historians and history buffs can document 10 political figures who visited the county either when they were president or before they became president.
In all, Truman made it to Everett four times, including another stop while in office.
The county first entertained a president 115 years ago. Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Everett by steamer May 23, 1903, and was driven up Hewitt Avenue. By some estimates the crowd numbered 35,000, more than triple Everett’s population at the time.
Author Max Miller later recounted the grand event in a book about childhood memories. He described how the president waved to some mysterious women a local minister had condemned to hell for their profession. They were largely hidden behind a tall fence.
“I am sorry, though, that he could not see the ladies’ pretty colored dresses, but the fence was so high that it cut off everything except their faces mostly and their arms being waved,” Miller wrote.
William Taft followed on Oct. 9, 1911, where he met with students from Lincoln School, which was across Colby Avenue from Everett High School.
Newspaper accounts described how the young students formed a patriotic red, white and blue shield that prompted an odd dialogue with the president.
Taft asked what the colors represented.
“Our country,” the children roared.
“Would you be willing to die for your country?” the president asked.
“Yes,” they declared.
“That is splendid,” Taft told them, “but it is better that you live for your country.”
O’Donnell, a retired principal with a deep interest in history, sometimes wonders how Taft ended up in Snohomish County that day with Everett High School’s impressive E building in the background in some historical photos.
He speculates without any firm evidence, that Leroy Vernon might have played a role. Vernon graduated from Everett High School in 1894, part of the school’s second graduating class. He went on to become a writer for the Chicago Daily News out of its Washington, D.C., bureau and was also active in Republican politics. He was known to take vacation in presidential election years to work for the publicity department of the Republican campaign committee. In 1912, Vernon was listed as publicity director for the National Taft Bureau.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a whistle-stop speech in Everett on Oct. 1, 1937, on his way from the Olympic Peninsula to Grand Coulee Dam. Truman made a second visit as president in 1952. Bill Clinton flew into Paine Field aboard Air Force One on Feb. 23, 1993, to promote his economic plan. He also met privately with Boeing workers at a time of heavy layoffs.
In April 2014, President Barack Obama toured the devastation after a mudslide killed 43 people near Oso. He also met privately with families who lost loved ones. It was his second visit here, after a 2012 stop at Boeing during his re-election campaign.
Over the years, future presidents have come to Snohomish County. They include Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, who was the latest to pass through. Trump held a campaign rally at what was then called Xfinity Arena in downtown Everett in August 2016.
Bob Drewel had the opportunity to encounter four of the 10 political leaders who were either president or would later become president during their trips to Snohomish County. Drewel did so in different roles, as Everett Community College president, Snohomish County executive and as executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council.
He was impressed by how pleasant and presidential the Bushes were; by Clinton’s intelligence and charisma and by how “absolutely genuine” Obama seemed to be.
“You don’t meet the president, even in passing, and not have your knees knock a bit,” Drewel said.
O’Donnell’s interest in American history and leaders only grew after that day in June 1948. He’s been to Virginia to visit President Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home and George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.
He has stopped by Taft’s grave at the Arlington National Cemetery. He’s toured Truman’s home in Independence, Missouri, gazed up at the presidents’ faces sculpted into Mount Rushmore and even bought a bugle from President Jimmy Carter’s uncle on a visit to an antique shop in Plains, Georgia, among other journeys into American history.
“There are so many different ways to connect,” he said.