I am one of the reasons we have a Hall of Famous Missourians. Not a big reason, but I was a contributor to its origin.
Speaker Steven Tilley wants to put a bust of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh in the hall. His choice has produced sharp, strong reactions that are heightened by Limbaugh’s highly derogatory comments about a young woman who testified before a congressional committee about the availability of contraception. Limbaugh has released a statement apologizing — after about seven of his sponsors took their money from where his mouth is.
We’re not going to wade into this fight about whether Limbaugh belongs in the same hall as Mark Twain, Omar Bradley, Scott Joplin, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Alexander Doniphan, George Washington Carver, Joyce Hall, Edwin Hubble, Marlin Perkins, and Betty Grable, among others except to say that there are dozens of people who have brought distinction to Missouri far beyond the fame that Limbaugh has achieved. Is he a more important Missourian than T. S. Eliot? Langston Hughes? Joseph Pulitzer? James B. Eads?
We have a long list of potential candidates for the hall that we send to each new speaker. Rush Limbaugh has never been on the list. But for most of its history, the Hall of Famous Missourians has been the province of the Speaker of the House. Here’s how that came to be.
Thirty or so years ago, some legislative wives decided their fund-raising efforts should be more significant than holding some teas. Geri Rothman, the wife of the Speaker of the House, gathered some other legislative wives around here and they decided to raise money for some new art for the capitol. Out of their thinking grew a committee that sponsored some gridiron shows, similar to the annual ones held in Washington each year. Various groups from government do a series of skits or performances that lampoon other parts of government. The press corps took part in the first two of these shows and I wrote or co-wrote (my memory is a little fuzzy here) the scripts and performed. It was all inside stuff. Lobbyists provided food and drink.
Enough money was raised for the casting of four bronze busts for a Hall of Famous Missourians. By the time those four were installed, the legislative wives were out of money. They and their husbands had moved on in career and life. So for several years the Hall had only four honorees.
Then Speaker Bob Griffin resurrected the idea and began holding golf tournaments to raise money for more busts. Since then, succeeding speakers have raised money and commissioned busts. Griffin still has some money in a trust that he had set aside for more busts and in recent years has commissioned a few more.
In 2001 the legislature created the Second Capitol Commission, a body formed to raise money for the research, writing, and publication of a book about the construction and decoration of the capitol. No state appropriation has ever gone to this commission but it did raise several thousand dollars that produced the first book — The Art of the Missouri Capitol — which came out last May.
Along the way the commission has picked up additional responsibilities. It now is in charge of all additional decorations to be added to the capitol, inside and out. At least it is supposed to be. But that hasn’t kept Griffin from creating more busts or Tilley from deciding Rush Limbaugh was significantly more important than Eliot, Hughes, Eads, Pulitzer, or a raft of other people.
The unofficial rules were that the selection of members of the hall would not be a matter of partisan politics and that no living politician would be inducted. The latter unwritten rule was ignored by Speaker Rod Jetton who decided John Ashcroft belonged in the Hall. He also decided Bob Barker, the TV host, was more famous than a lot of other people. It is hard not to think that partisan politics has entered the selection process of late.
The Hall of Famous Missourians includes at least one drug addict and a leader of the Missouri-Kansas border war who advocated hanging without trial people who helped slaves escape to freedom. It has at least one superego who left Missouri and hardly ever admitted that he was from here, and two actresses and a dancer who relied on sex appeal for much of their fame. It’s not a Hall of Saints. It’s a hall of Missourians whose fame was greater than their shortcomings.
Rush Limbaugh was a nobody when the Hall of Famous Missourians was created by people who believed it should honor those who have brought distinction to a state that too many people think is full of rednecks.
I don’t think any of us who created and performed in those first gridiron shows all those years ago ever thought somebody like Rush Limbaugh would be of the stature of Josephine Baker or Ewing Kauffman, or Walt Disney, or John J. Pershing, or Thomas Hart Benton, the artist. Or Walter Cronkite, once called “the most trusted man in America.”
That’s a far cry from somebody who called a young woman testifying before a congressional committee a “slut.” But picking a person to be put in the Hall has been the Speaker’s prerogative for a long time.
You can celebrate or protest as you wish. Just thought you’d like a little background on the Hall of Famous Missourians. If you want a lot more, look at the book. There’s a lot of stuff about how the Hall got started and who the other members are.