BIRDWHISTELL: Well, Mr. Norris, I appreciate you taking the time today to talk
about your recollections of Fred Vinson. And I thought in terms of some
background on yourself, I would mention that you were a graduate of Centre
College in 1914.
NORRIS: That's correct.
BIRDWHISTELL: And then became a high school principal from 1914 to 1918. And
then was editor and owner of the [Pendleton ?] Democrat from 1919 to 1921. And
then you came to Ashland in 1921 as associate editor of the Ashland Daily
Independent, and then became president and editor in 1950.
NORRIS: That's correct.
BIRDWHISTELL: When is the first time you ever met Fred Vinson, do you have any
recollections of that?
NORRIS: Well, it was in September of 1910 we had graduated -- four of us
had graduated from the high school of Augusta, Kentucky and went there in 1910
00:01:00and went to live in Breckenridge Hall, which is the old dormitory. And Fred
lived there, and he was a senior in law school. He had graduated from Centre in
1909. And he was two years from graduating. He had gone to the Kentucky Normal
Institute in Louisa before he went to Centre, probably he was about a -- through
the sophomore year when he went to Centre.
BIRDWHISTELL: What were your first impressions of him at that first time you
met him? What type of person was he?
NORRIS: Well, he was a well-known campus figure by that time. You see,
he had played baseball and had played basketball quite a little bit, and he was
the unquestionably leader in student activities and he was supposed to have been
the best student that had graduated up to that point as far as his mind went.
He had a wonderful mind. And he was very kind to younger -- of course, there
00:02:00was a difference of four years there approximate between us, but he knew all the
ropes and knew all the ways around. We all lived together at the old college
home. It was good board, two dollars and a half a week, [chuckle--Birdwhistell]
seven days a week, three meals a day. And we lived there at that dormitory for
the rest of that year. And of course, he was gone in 1911, he graduated in
class of 1911 from the college -- from the law school.
BIRDWHISTELL: Right. Did Vinson seem to have less money than most students or
NORRIS: Well, he seemed to be about average. I don't think he was
wealthy. None of us were for that matter. Didn't take a whole lot of money in
those days, as you can judge by what the board cost us [chuckles]. I think the
school expenses were about four hundred dollars a year, total.
BIRDWHISTELL: Did you find that Vinson in college was sort of a politician,
that he sort of worked with the --
BIRDWHISTELL: But he was sort of a politician on campus among the students?
NORRIS: Well, yes. He entered fraternity politics and things of that
kind. He was not -- I don't think he went out a great deal socially, he was a
very hard student. He spent his time working on his subjects and also on
athletics. He was quite an athlete. He was a good shortstop and a very slender
man. I don't suppose Fred would have weighed over 150 pounds. He was about
five feet eleven [inches]. Now later in life he became heavier, of course,
quite a bit heavier.
BIRDWHISTELL: Are there any anecdotes or stories about his baseball days that
00:04:00you recall, of any specific games or incidents?
NORRIS: Oh, he and some of the fellows from here who were on the team at
the time, John [Dedrick] for one, used to tell terrific stories. Liked to get
together and tell stories about when they played. But most of them were on
John, because John was a great, big, heavyset, strong man and was quite a
pitcher. And they used to tell the story about he lost his shoes down in North
Carolina, they had to play a game and the only shoes he could wear were those
that belonged to the biggest colored man in town, so he borrowed those and
played. [Chuckle--Birdwhistell] Civilian shoes and played baseball game in
those, and stories like that, the trips they made and the close games that they
had, and so forth. I never thought the stories lost anything in the telling. [Laughter]
BIRDWHISTELL: If nothing else they gained some. Someone said that maybe on the
baseball field that Vinson had a tendency to lose his temper occasionally. Did
00:05:00you ever recall any of those instances?
NORRIS: Well, he was rather
high-strung. He played hard and meant to win, and I think he would contest
almost any point if he could chance. But I was always surprised after he went
up to the Supreme Court that he was considered the great pacificator of the
Court because he didn't have those tendencies quite that much when he was young.
BIRDWHISTELL: Did you find that he got along well with the professors on
campus, was he respected by the faculty?
NORRIS: Oh yes. Very much. Very much respected by the faculty and the
students. He was a very sincere, honest sort of fellow. Of course he wasn't
old then, I suppose he wasn't yet twenty-one, between twenty and twenty-one, his
senior year in law school.
BIRDWHISTELL: At maybe a session where all the students were sitting around
00:06:00talking, did he ever mention what he wanted to do, life, his ambition?
NORRIS: Yeah, he wanted to become a lawyer and a politician. He wanted
to -- had an ambition to hold public office. And he was very successful, of
course, because he held a great many.
BIRDWHISTELL: Now, you mentioned before we began the interview that after
Vinson left college and after your graduation that you really didn't have any
contact with him until around, say, 1923, isn't that right?
NORRIS: Yes, that's approximately correct. Of course I was down in
Bracken County where I was born and reared, and in Pendleton [Boone?] County.
And I married and had a family, had plenty to do, and he did too, of course. He
was busy in Lawrence County. And I don't remember any particular contact unless
we met back at Centre maybe once or twice. But he -- I think he was county
00:07:00attorney, isn't that true, up in Lawrence County for a time and quite a lawyer,
quite a speaker. And then after he -- after William J. Field became governor,
he was elected to fill his place in Congress from this old ninth district. Now
the old Ninth District ran along the river starting in Lawrence County on the
east and ending with Bracken County on the west. And he wasn't very
well-acquainted in that end of the county -- of the district and of course I was
because I grew up there, and I helped him some in his first races to Congress.
He made friends and met people very easily of course and I didn't need to more
than once or twice, or he knew more people than I did by that time.
BIRDWHISTELL: So you had come to Ashland in '21 and I guess you all had gotten
together a couple of times and reestablished your friendship?
NORRIS: Yes. That's right.
BIRDWHISTELL: And so in '23 then when he was running for Governor Fields'
congressional seat then you took him to Bracken County and introduced him around there?
NORRIS: Of course we advocated his election here because -- but he didn't
have very much trouble, he won easily. He was very popular in this end of the
district and soon became so down there.
BIRDWHISTELL: So you would describe him as a good campaigner then?
Very good. He had a wonderful memory for names and family connections, all
that sort of thing. I'll tell you a little story later on that will illustrate that.
NORRIS: Of course we were both in the American Legion and we frequently
saw one another at Legion meetings, different places around the district. He
was quite a speaker.
BIRDWHISTELL: Would you consider him an old-style speaker from the stump, sort of?
NORRIS: Yes, and he was very apt to quote. One of the quotations that I
00:09:00remember that he used a great deal was one that he used from George Mason. You
know of course who George Mason was. He wrote the Virginia Declaration of
Rights. I can use it, I think, "The debts we owe our ancestors we must repay by
handing down entire those sacred rights to which we ourselves would want." I've
heard him quote that a good many times in public speaking.
BIRDWHISTELL: He became known as quite an organizer in campaigns. Did you find
that in the '23 campaign that you helped him with that he paid a lot of
attention to organization and to the grass roots?
NORRIS: Yes, as much
as you could in those days. Of course there was definitely, as you realize, a
communication -- media were not so easy.
BIRDWHISTELL: Right. And traveling took a lot longer.
NORRIS: And travelling was harder. There weren't very many good roads in
those days in his district. But he was successful and became a very able
00:10:00politician. Of course he stayed in, as you know, until the [Herbert] Hoover
landslide in 1928 and he lost his seat then, but I believe he gained it back the
next -- in '30.
BIRDWHISTELL: In '30 right. How would you describe his
political philosophy when he first went to Congress? Was he a conservative or a
liberal, or would you be willing to label him like that?
NORRIS: I don't think you could use those labels in the sense that we use
them today, very readily. He was for the underdog always and that sort of
[inaudible]. But he wasn't liberal in the sense of liberal with other people's
money. [Chuckle--Birdwhistell] He was a very practical sort of man.
BIRDWHISTELL: So, you said he was for the underdog. Why do you think he --
Did he ever discuss his reasons for carrying that philosophy? Was there
anything in his background that would lend him to [inaudible]?
NORRIS: I wouldn't think so. Maybe there had been some poverty in his
00:11:00family as far as that's concerned, just as there was in a great many of us in
those days. He didn't oppose wealth, but I never knew a man that cared as
little for money personally himself. I never knew a man in my life that cared
for money as little and he had ample opportunities of course to have taken
profitable positions if he had wanted. But I think he was honest in his attempt
to be a public servant and well, yes, he wanted a living of course, but I mean
he had no ambitions for wealth and didn't.
BIRDWHISTELL: Well, between '23 and '28 when he was defeated, he was in
Congress and you were here at the newspaper sort of watching his actions, --
NORRIS: Well, he retained law offices here and his office was right
around the corner here between 17th and 18th on Winchester Avenue.
BIRDWHISTELL: Is that right?
NORRIS: And he had a law office that he came to, of course, when he
wasn't in Washington, and practiced.
BIRDWHISTELL: Did you find him to be an effective congressman for this district?
NORRIS: Oh yes, he was very effective. I never asked him to do anything
for me but once. And I had a cousin who was a widow in a little town in the
state, and the post office became vacant, and I asked him to consider appointing
her, and he did. And I can tell you a strange incident that will perhaps
illustrate the kind of man Fred was. She was a very conscientious Methodist, a
member of the church, and she was very strong against alcoholic beverages. And
she accepted the appointment and thanked him, and then her conscience got to
00:13:00hurting her because she hadn't voted for him the last time. And she thought she
ought to tell him, and she told me so. Well, I said, if you feel like that,
come on up and we'll go see him and you can tell him, let him decide. So she
did. She came up and she said, "Mr. Vinson, I feel that I should tell you that
I didn't vote for you last election." And he said, "Why didn't you?" She said,
"I understood that you were quite one to consume alcohol." "Well," he said,
"whoever told you that was wrong," and I knew that for a fact that it was wrong.
He didn't drink. I did a little myself, occasionally, but he never, that is in
those times that I knew. I guess later on in life he perhaps would drink
socially a little, but he never was a drunkard. Well he said, "I can understand
how my political enemies probably would have told you that, but," he said, "that
isn't true and Jimmy here knows it isn't true." I said, "That's right." So she
00:14:00went ahead and took the job. But he didn't get angry with her, he just
appreciated her honesty. She meant to be honest, didn't want to sail under
BIRDWHISTELL: [Chuckle] That is an interesting story there. Do you think maybe
she got the idea that he was pro-alcohol because in 1928 he became state
campaign chairman for Al Smith and the connection there with anti-prohibition lobbying?
NORRIS: I don't know. It might have lead to that kind of rumor -- that
could have led to that kind of rumor, of course, and especially in that campaign.
BIRDWHISTELL: All right. From what I have been able to tell, from newspapers
and looking at histories of that campaign, that Al Smith was a rather unpopular
candidate in this section of the state and my question is, why did Vinson take
00:15:00on the responsibility of running a campaign of someone like Al Smith who is
obviously so unpopular in his home district? Did he ever talk with you about that?
NORRIS: Well, not specifically that I recall, but I can understand -- Of
course, the religious question played a part in that campaign. There isn't any
question about that, that's history. And I think all of his unpopularity, Al
Smith's unpopularity, was based on that rather than any tremendous fall or
anything of that kind. Particularly in this area and of course that was a
strong thing because the majority here were -- well, what is it, WASPs, white,
BIRDWHISTELL: Right. White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. [Chuckles] Well, did
the newspaper take a position here on the election in favor of Al Smith and Vinson?
NORRIS: No, not in favor of Al Smith and Vinson, in favor of Vinson.
BIRDWHISTELL: And not in Al Smith. Do you think that --
NORRIS: And it didn't do any good. Smoke went right on up the chimney [chuckles].
BIRDWHISTELL: Do you think that Vinson was overconfident in that campaign, that
he didn't really think he could lose even with the Al Smith connection?
NORRIS: Well, possibly he was. He was possibly overconfident.
BIRDWHISTELL: I was wondering --
NORRIS: There were other things that entered into it really besides the
religious question. There were the condition things, you know. Let's see, that
was just after [Calvin] Coolidge's administration, wasn't it?
BIRDWHISTELL: Umhmm. Well now after Vinson was voted out of office in
Congress, I think he moved his law firm -- his law practice here to Ashland.
NORRIS: Yes, he spent his full time here then.
BIRDWHISTELL: Is there any reason that he came to Ashland instead of going back
to Louisa, do you think?
NORRIS: Well, I suppose that there was more law business here to be
tended to and he'd made some connections here in the legal fraternity, enabled
him to practice and make a living here and do it, I suppose, better perhaps than
he could have done in Louisa. I don't know. I don't remember discussing it
with him. But he stayed here then, you see, until he became needed in
Washington in Franklin Roosevelt's administration.
BIRDWHISTELL: Did you find that Vinson was very highly respected among other
lawyers here in Ashland as a very able lawyer?
NORRIS: Yes. Yes, he was. He was a very able courtroom lawyer and he
00:18:00was a good tax lawyer. You remember he was chairman of the Ways and Means
Committee when he was in Congress, --
BIRDWHISTELL: Right, a sub--- a sub---
NORRIS: -- a subcommittee there that had to with the income taxes.
BIRDWHISTELL: With the taxes, right.
NORRIS: Yes. And he became known as an expert on income tax matters.
And although it was complicated then, wasn't nearly as complicated as it is now,
of course. Income tax settlement was a little bit easier to understand. He was
known as an extremely good tax lawyer.
BIRDWHISTELL: Some people have said that right after his defeat in '28 he began
running for re-election in the 1930 campaign. Do you recall much about his
campaign in 1930?
NORRIS: I don't think there is any doubt about that, he was -- The man
who succeeded him was, oh, a very good young man but totally inexperienced in
politics and the national scene and it wasn't very hard for Fred to beat him in
00:19:00the next campaign.
BIRDWHISTELL: I was really wondering if he campaigned in 1930 or it was just --
NORRIS: Yeah, there wasn't any national campaign on then, of course, no
presidential year, that was 1932.
BIRDWHISTELL: And Vinson was able to reestablish his political base in the
district. What was the relationship between Governor Fields and Vinson? Were
NORRIS: I think they were. I don't remember too much. I knew Governor
Fields when he was in Congress, but I didn't -- I was busy right here all the
time then and I didn't take any -- much part in politics, just being for Fred.
Governor Fields was known as "Honest Bill from Olive Hill" you know and he was a
00:20:00very striking and honest sort of fellow.
BIRDWHISTELL: There seemed to be some disagreement between he and Vinson after
his term as governor ran out and apparently he wanted to run for Congress again.
Did you ever get caught in the middle of that argument?
NORRIS: No. No, I didn't know that that came up, but as far as I can see
Fred would have had the ascendancy there and the chance to stay in Congress
because he made a good congressman. And was on the rise, sort of, you know. He
got national recognition for a number of things, particularly in that tax matter.
BIRDWHISTELL: In 1932, in the Democratic primary, the number of congressional
districts in Kentucky had been decreased and --
NORRIS: Yeah, went down from nine to eight, didn't it?
BIRDWHISTELL: Right, I think so. And so the Democrats ran a slate for their
congressional candidates, but John Y. Brown won in that campaign and wasn't on
the approved slate that Vinson was on. And then of course later he and Vinson
seemed to have some sharp differences on the floor of the House of
Representatives. I was wondering if you could give any insight into their relationship?
NORRIS: Really, I didn't know much about that except what I read in the
papers. Of course, that all happened in Washington. I knew that there had been
some -- I wouldn't say bad blood, but just some [diversative ?] interest I would
say among them [chuckles]. But I really -- I never was out acting in politics
myself except as a news observer.
BIRDWHISTELL: Did Vinson ever tell you about any other problems he had with the
00:22:00Kentucky congressional delegation? Did he seem to get along with most of the
rest of them?
NORRIS: I think he got along with the majority of them pretty well. He
had much the same situation that in later years in Congress that our present
congressman has. You couldn't beat him, and that's my opinion, in this district
[in fifty races ?]. And I think Fred had the same sort of position. He really
served the district and apparently in an unselfish sort of way.
BIRDWHISTELL: Were there any particular projects that he was responsible for as
a congressman that helped out specifically this district? Anything --
NORRIS: Well, I don't recall except in the development of the river and
00:23:00the Ohio Valley bridges and those things, he was always very helpful in those.
I remember when this bridge was built here, [the old Ben Livingstone ?] Memorial
Bridge from here to Ohio, and he was of course instrumental in getting that just
as much as he could do. And we certainly needed it. Four miles from Rus---
[clears throat] pardon me -- we're four miles from Russell. You know how we got
papers there in those days from here to Russell? We sent them across the river
here on a ferry, down on a street car to Ironton, and back across on a ferry to
Russell. [Chuckle--Birdwhistell] That's four miles. That's every afternoon.
Now, in the mornings we put them on a train and they were there in five minutes.
There was no train in the afternoon and no road.
BIRDWHISTELL: There was no road to Russell?
NORRIS: No road.
BIRDWHISTELL: I hadn't thought of that. That's very odd.
NORRIS: It wasn't odd in those days. [Laughter] There were lots of
places where there were no roads.
BIRDWHISTELL: I guess you're right. Vinson seemed to get along real well
with the other Democrats in Congress from around the country, but especially
what might be termed the Texas connection, with Marvin Jones and Sam Rayburn and
John Garner. Did he ever speak with you about his relationship with these men?
NORRIS: I have heard him speak very highly of John Garner. He admired
him very much. Tom Clark was a friend of his too, wasn't he, later on?
BIRDWHISTELL: Right. They were on the Court together.
NORRIS: Yes. I don't -- See, I had no opportunity much to talk with him
about things of that kind when he was in Washington, very infrequently. Later
on, when it came up to World War II times and after he'd gone up to be district
judge -- federal judge to the District of Columbia, I had some experience in
talking to him about various things. I wanted to get back in the Marine Corps,
00:25:00but I was about a little overage and grey. [Chuckles] I had an idea that I
could qualify for a job that they needed men for then, their combat
intelligence. Interviewing combat pilots, any that might be captured and that
sort of thing. But I was I guess forty-five years overage and grey. So Fred
told me to come up to Washington and see what he could do. So he said, "Now if
you could just leave your hat on," he said, "I think I could get you by for
younger than you are." [Chuckles] "You take off your hat and show that bald
head," [chuckles] he said, "you're going to be sent down." "Well," I said,
"let's try it anyhow," and we did. But I didn't get that position. I got back
in the Marine Corps but I didn't get that because I learned later, by
00:26:00experience, that I was really too old for that sort of thing. You have to stay
up all night and work all day, three or four days straight, and a man close to
fifty years old doesn't do that nearly as easily as a boy in his twenties. I
BIRDWHISTELL: Right. While in the House of Representatives, Vinson broke with
F.D.R. [Franklin D. Roosevelt] only twice during his career, on bills, I
believe. And once was on the Economy Bill in 1933 and again on the Veterans
Bonus Payment in '35. Do you recall those votes?
NORRIS: I don't recall the first one except just roughly -- generally. I
don't recall any details. I do remember about the other because I was very much
opposed to the bonus myself. And voted and talked against it, and in fact was
00:27:00kicked out of the party and the American Legion because I did.
BIRDWHISTELL: Is that right?
NORRIS: Which was -- I didn't believe that we fought in that war to make
money. I know I didn't. If I had, I'd have stayed at home because I had a wife
and two children at home. So later on I just decided I'd see if I could outrun
the boys in the Legion, and I became state commander of the Legion in '40. I
managed to defeat my opponent. [Chuckles] And Fred, I know he -- I knew how he
BIRDWHISTELL: Did you write a letter to him specifically about your feelings?
NORRIS: I don't believe I wrote a letter specifically, no, but it was
very evident in the editorial. [Chuckles]
BIRDWHISTELL: Did Fred Vinson ever write to you after reading your editorials?
NORRIS: No, no we never disagreed particularly on it. And I won't say
00:28:00that when the time came that the bonus was paid I didn't take it, because I felt
I was as much entitled to it as any of the rest of them. But I was against the
idea of it.
BIRDWHISTELL: Vinson seemed to watch pretty closely the mood of the veterans.
NORRIS: Yes, I think he did.
BIRDWHISTELL: And was active in veterans affairs around the state. NORRIS:
BIRDWHISTELL: In 1933 Vinson fell out with Robert Worth Bingham and the
Louisville Courier-Journal over the Economy Bill, I believe. Do you recall
Vinson's disagreement with Mr. Bingham?
NORRIS: I knew that they disagreed and that Bingham was not for him, but
it's a little hazy in my mind about the details. I wasn't basically interested
enough to remember at this stage of life all the details. And the outcome --
00:29:00Vinson was successful, wasn't he, or was he?
BIRDWHISTELL: I guess so.
NORRIS: I think so.
BIRDWHISTELL: How would you describe Vinson's relationship with the press in
general? Was he effective with the press?
NORRIS: Oh yes, yes. The press -- most of the papers that I knew were
friendly toward him. Well, the Lexington papers were and Owensboro was.
Incidentally, Owensboro -- of course there was another Centre College man.
BIRDWHISTELL: Right. Mr. [Lawrence] Hager.
NORRIS: Incidentally, he knew Fred fully as well as I did because he was
there in college with him. I think from the time he began. I think he
graduated in 1909 from college, too.
BIRDWHISTELL: Right. I talked with him not long ago. Of course, the Ashland
00:30:00Daily Independent was one of the main papers that Vinson would have been
interested in in his district because of its influence.
NORRIS: So long as he is running for Congress, yes.
BIRDWHISTELL: Was he ever in any disagreements with you over an editorial, or
did he ever call you or write you and question your stands on the issue at any time?
NORRIS: I don't suppose. Of course, I wasn't alone here. Mr. [?] Forgy
was the editor, only he was getting a little older at that time. And I didn't
write all the editorials by any means, but I wrote some of them. [Chuckles]
BIRDWHISTELL: Of course in 1938 Vinson left the Congress and became a member of
the Emergency Court of Appeals in Washington. Why do you think he left Congress
to take the job on the court?
NORRIS: I always thought -- I don't know that I ever heard him express
himself, I always thought that his ambition pointed exactly where he got, which
00:31:00is the Supreme Court. I know he was very much elated when he received that
appointment. But he held one or two other executive positions before -- between
the two, of course. He was treasurer of the United States for a while, and some
other posts, some of those wartime posts. Of course I was out of touch during
World War II. I didn't seem to know a great deal of what was going on because I
BIRDWHISTELL: But it didn't surprise you that in '38 when Vinson was really
becoming powerful in the House of Representatives that he would leave for a
judge post which would sort of take him out of politics and out of the mainstream?
NORRIS: I think he regarded that as the height of his profession, his
serving on the Supreme Court. Now, I don't mean that he said that to me, but
00:32:00that's the way I thought he was headed and he was, that's where he finally came.
BIRDWHISTELL: Well, at least one historian believes that there was politics
involved in Vinson's move to the court in the fact that [A.B. "Happy"] Chandler
wanted to be a senator and had been pressing to get Senator [Marvel] Logan
appointed to a judgeship, but Vinson took it instead. Do you recall anything
NORRIS: I know that it went on, but I wasn't very much interested at the
time. I don't recall that I was at all interested in it because -- Now, he and
Chandler I don't think were too close. Do you know -- you may know more about
that than I do.
BIRDWHISTELL: Well, I was going to ask you, they never seemed to get along too
well here in the state, if you had any recollection of --
NORRIS: I remember that there was friction, especially while Chandler was
governor. That was '36 he went in, wasn't it?
BIRDWHISTELL: Right. Yeah, January of '36. Or December of '35, actually.
NORRIS: I never knew the inside of it.
BIRDWHISTELL: Did you attend the Democratic state convention in '31 when
Chandler was nominated lieutenant governor, in Lexington?
don't think I did.
BIRDWHISTELL: Where Vinson supported somebody else besides Chandler for
lieutenant governor. I believe that might be --
NORRIS: Probably the start of it.
BIRDWHISTELL: -- where some of it began anyway.
NORRIS: I never attended but one state Democratic convention.
BIRDWHISTELL: Is that right? Did you find that while Vinson was congressman
from this district that he was effective in statewide politics, that he was a
influential member in the Democratic party?
NORRIS: Well, I didn't think
until perhaps the latter years, maybe the last term, that he paid much attention
00:34:00to state politics. Well, he was very busy in Washington, of course. Do you
mean patronage and things of that kind in the state?
BIRDWHISTELL: Yeah, that too.
NORRIS: I don't think so. I don't think so outside of his own district.
But he might have and I wouldn't have known it. I wasn't in the party at all,
in the party active.
BIRDWHISTELL: I see. Was Vinson -- Did he continue to be active in politics
after he left Congress and became a judge in '38? Do you recall him being
active in state politics after that point?
NORRIS: No. No, I didn't know of a great deal. On local matters he
would be and of course these old friends would write him and ask him to do what
he could to help them on this, that, or the other project. But he was a pretty
conscientious about that sort of thing. I think he thought about the rights and
00:35:00wrongs pretty carefully before he acted either way. That's my observation of
BIRDWHISTELL: How would you describe Vinson as a family man? Was he very
close to his family?
NORRIS: Oh, I thought so. Of course, you know, he married a girl younger
-- quite a little bit young than he was there in Louisa.
BIRDWHISTELL: Roberta Dixon.
NORRIS: Yeah, Roberta Dixon. I have heard others say, and I don't know
that I ever heard him say it, but that's the only girl that he ever went with
for any time at all or paid very much attention to. In fact I know from the
time in college he didn't pay any attention to the girls and then he really
didn't have time. He was nearly all the time on school subjects and athletics
and so forth, and a little intra-fraternity politics and that sort of thing.
BIRDWHISTELL: Did you get to know his wife very well?
BIRDWHISTELL: Did she seem interested in his political career?
NORRIS: Oh yes, I think she was. I think she was. I didn't know her
real well. When they lived here I remember we were with them a few times. She
and my wife were good friends. They had the two sons, of course, and one of
them, Jim Bob, was about the age of my son and they ran around together quite a
little. My son is the editor of the paper up here now. And Fred I knew very
well. Fred went to Washington and Lee, I believe.
BIRDWHISTELL: Right. It seems that Vinson was also close to the Blazers here
in Ashland. Was it a close relationship between them?
NORRIS: Yes, they
were very good friends. My wife, of course, was Mrs. Blazer. And her son who
00:37:00was killed in Korea was a great admirer of Fred and he used to stop there. She
told me just the other day we were talking, used to stop and stay with him when
he was in Washington. He was also a friend of my son's. In fact they were very
close, intimate friends. And he was killed in, let's see, October '52 I believe
it was. He was an infantry lieutenant, and six feet, six or seven inches tall,
and anyway where he took his platoon they couldn't make cover and he was the
first one to get it because of his height.
BIRDWHISTELL: That's too bad. I suppose though that having Mr. [Paul] Blazer's
support in a political campaign in this area was beneficial to Vinson, too.
NORRIS: I would think so. Of course, Mr. Blazer came here in '24 and I
00:38:00don't suppose he knew Fred very well for several years after that. And after
that he didn't -- honestly Fred didn't need a whole lot of support.
BIRDWHISTELL: Right. Of course then in '38 he went out of the elected office
and was appointed, and so it would be more or less a social relationship.
NORRIS: They were just personally good friends, I think and he always
approved -- I know, Paul always approved of Fred's philosophy on taxes. Fred
believed the more jobs you could create the better off everybody was, which I
think is true. Of course Ashland, you know twenty-some people [a hundred and ?]
fifteen or twenty thousand now [chuckles] here in the state.
BIRDWHISTELL: Right. Did you have very much -- Well, you mentioned you didn't
have very much contact with Vinson during the war years, during the '40s, is
NORRIS: That's right. That's right. I was with him in '46 -- When was
it he received notice of his appointment to the --
BIRDWHISTELL: To the bench?
NORRIS: -- to chief justice.
BIRDWHISTELL: In '46.
NORRIS: '46, yeah. We were in Danville when the -- for some event, I
guess it was commencement it being in June, when he received the news.
BIRDWHISTELL: Oh, is that right?
NORRIS: Umhmm. And of course, he -- it wasn't unexpected I think, but
anyway he wanted to get home and get home quickly, get back to Ashland. And I
brought him up myself. And I'll never forget it, and this is an example of what
I was talking about earlier. We left there, I suppose, about eight o'clock --
7:30, eight o'clock in the evening and he hadn't had any dinner. He'd been
talking to people and stopped to see my daughter and son-in-law and my
granddaughter. She tells about him speaking to her on the day he was appointed,
00:40:00and so on, --
NORRIS: -- and meeting him. And we drove on through and we got to
Lexington and we were might hungry. So we got here on the eastern outskirts--I
wish I could remember the fellow's name--but anyway Fred said, "I want something
to eat." And I said, "Well, I'd like something, too." "Well," he said, "this
fellow over here now, he came here from Harlan." And he said, "I know his
folks. I know his mother and father and his brothers." He said, "I'll bet he'd
let us get something to eat although they're closed." "Well," I said, "let's
take a try." So he went over and knocked on the door and this man came said,
"We're closed." And he said, "Well," whatever-his-name-was, said "you remember
me, I'm Fred Vinson." "Why," he said, "Fred, I'm so glad to see you." And we
went in and we had a wonderful meal. [Laughter] But he knew everybody by name,
everybody in that family. He had a wonderful -- I never knew anybody that even
came close to him, unless it was "Happy" Chandler in remembering, people's names
00:41:00and their family connections, being able to ask about the mother and aunts and
so forth and so on.
BIRDWHISTELL: Well, you all were together the day he was -- he got word.
NORRIS: Yeah, he came on up here and stayed at my house and left [out of
the call ?] on the early morning train.
BIRDWHISTELL: Had he told you about his appointment?
BIRDWHISTELL: Did he knew he was going to get it?
NORRIS: No, he hadn't.
BIRDWHISTELL: What was his reaction, how did he break the news to you? Was it
sort of a modest reaction?
NORRIS: Yeah, very modest reaction. Very modest reaction. Of course, I
think everybody knew it about the same time. It was announced over the radio,
you know. I guess not over television in those days, I don't think that there
was much television in those days.
BIRDWHISTELL: Were you surprised about his appointment or did you suspect it?
NORRIS: Well I was surprised at the time, you know, exactly but I didn't
-- I thought that eventually it was going to come if Fred could have his own
will and he'd get what he wanted. I think he wanted to be chief justice of the
BIRDWHISTELL: Did he ever discuss that position with you? What did he say the
night after his appointment when he was at your house? Did he ever give any
indication of how he viewed the job or what he wanted to do as chief justice?
NORRIS: No, he didn't go into details except to say that there was
division and difficulties in the Court. And that's where I thought how
different he was from his youthful attitude. He thought he could be the fellow
who could bring diverging bodies together a little bit. And he was, he was very
good at that. He was a peacemaker. He hadn't been that, [chuckles] not exactly.
BIRDWHISTELL: Of course in 1952 when [Harry S.] Truman decided not to seek
reelection, there's a lot of speculation and Truman in his memoirs mentioned
00:43:00that he wanted Vinson to run for the presidency. Did Vinson ever discuss the
possibility of making a race for the presidency with you?
NORRIS: No, he never did. I was very much interested. I rather had
hoped that he would. I think his health wasn't too good by that time, isn't
that true? Didn't that play some part in it?
BIRDWHISTELL: Well, I've heard
some people -- some speculation on that.
NORRIS: He never said that, but I've heard it. His health wasn't very
good the last year or two. And he died in September of '53, didn't he?
BIRDWHISTELL: '53, right. Did you find that -- since you knew each other in
college and he had been in Congress and held appointed offices in the executive
branch of government and finally became chief justice, did you find that he
changed over the years, except from his maybe not being as argumentative as -- ?
NORRIS: That was the change and then he was more deliberative, than he
00:44:00had been, in his conversation and all. Of course a man in public life would be
in the positions he was later in. He couldn't talk a great deal about the
things he had to decide. Yes, he changed to that extent, but that was just --
any younger man changes as he grows older in that regard.
BIRDWHISTELL: Right. In looking back over his career from the standpoint from
a friend, an associate, and a newspaper man, what do you see as some of his
greatest accomplishments in his career?
NORRIS: Well, I think he was a liberal in the old-fashioned sense of the
word, not in [something to boast about ?], I'm talking about the other kind of a
liberal. He wanted to see the underdog have an opportunity. And I think he was
successful in supporting and pushing legislation to that effect. And then he
00:45:00was a believer that certainly somebody like him is needed today in the
simplification of the tax structure. It comes so it's everybody's enemy now, as
you know I guess. Nobody knows exactly what the tax structure is. And he was
able to know in his time, of course it was simpler. But those were things that
I think he really conquered. Of course he was like any other congressman, he
worked for public works and things of that kind for his district to improve the
conditions. He was -- just like anyone would. And he was a great patriot,
there's no question about that. He had a patriotic spirit. Sometimes I wonder
if they all are now. Some are, I know.
BIRDWHISTELL: Is there anything we haven't discussed that you think would be
00:46:00helpful to someone who is trying to understand a person like Fred Vinson? Any
experiences you had with him, other than the ones you shared so far, that might
NORRIS: I can't think of anything specific. He was a great deal --
Well, you know his background. He's typical eastern Kentucky, right typical I
think. Just as Governor "Sim" [Simeon] Willis was for that matter. And we were
talking the other night, some of us, that they were not unlike in some of their
attitudes. Of course they were different political parties. I don't mean
politics, I mean their philosophies of life --
[User tape ends here]
NORRIS: -- and the type of background they came from and that sort of
thing. He was typical of this era and this area.
BIRDWHISTELL: Well, I appreciate you taking the time today to share your recollections.
NORRIS: All right. Glad to do it.
BIRDWHISTELL: And a pleasure talking to you.
NORRIS: And if you have any questions I can answer, I'll be glad to
BIRDWHISTELL: Okay. Thank you very much.
[End of Interview]
James T. Norris by Terry Birdwhistell - Jean Schmeisser