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Dinner with the President

Willmar editor shared ideas, turkey with JFK in 1961.  In today’s world it probably wouldn’t happen, but back in 1961, a small town editor met with the president of the United States, at the president’s request, to exchange views on state, regional and national problems. It was quite the meeting for Oscar Augustson, better known as “OBA,”  the editor of the West Central Daily Tribune located in Willmar. Imagine OBA’s surprise, elation and delight to receive that Western Union telegram from President JFK saying it would be useful to him (the president) if OBA would accept the invitation to come to dinner at the White House Dec. 1, 1961. OBA met with President Kennedy in the Oval office for a one-on-one visit. He sent the president a 24 pound, frozen Jennie O turkey and brought along a gift for Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, for her fourth birthday. The details of the visit were run through the president’s press secretary Pierre Salinger, who made sure the frozen turkey, which had been sent to the president by air beforehand, was prepared for the press dinner the president was having. OBA also made sure the president understood the turkey came from the Farmers Produce Plant in Willmar, the largest processing plant in the country. It isn’t known what prompted the one-on-one visit, but it might have been the gift of the turkey and the gift of the two miniature tom turkey salt and pepper shakers for Caroline. OBA’s daughters, Joan Augustson Kodet of Willmar and Judy Augustson Heath of rural New London think it might have been the gifts. They remember it well, plus they have OBA’s documentation of it in a scrapbook. That scrapbook is complete with the telegram OBA got inviting him to the White House, to his train ticket, pictures, a brochure of the white house featuring the different rooms, a copy of the luncheon menu, a list of the names of all the guests, several photos, articles from other newspapers, including the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, and editorials OBA wrote on the entire trip. His two daughters also don’t know if OBA’s bringing the turkey is what started turkeys going to the White House. “That was a long time ago,” said Joan. The two of them have many fond memories of their father. Kodet was a junior in high school at the time this happened. “The main thing I remember is when our dad was going to go to the White House we told him he had to have good manners when he was there and he wasn’t supposed to mess up or anything like that.” She added, “one thing we said to our dad was, ‘don’t drink out of the finger bowl it’s to clean your fingers.’ She said they were actually afraid he would drink out of the finger bowl and they were trying to give him some help with a little etiquette before he went there.” And of course it was a thrill for him to have the personal audience with JFK, they said, and for that many newspaper people to be at the dinner and for their dad to get the personal interview was something else. “They had to walk through a garden and go into this dining room and not only did he have the personal audience, he got to walk with JFK and enter the dining room and sit next to him. He didn’t expect this to happen….that was just a thrill.” Heath, who is the oldest of the Augustsons, lives on Lake Andrew on property once owned by Victor Lawson. “My dad developed it and it’s a privilege to be out there and enjoy the Bible Camp, which was given by Victor Lawson also.” Heath said before the trip to the White House there was a paper shortage in the state. “The little newspapers were suffering out in the boon docks and they had contacted John Cowles at the Minneapolis Star, to ask if he could share paper for a while. I don’t know what he said or what happened but he didn’t.” And now OBA goes to the White House and as he’s sitting by the president, a little further over is Cowles. Heath went on to say her dad would never ever wish anything bad on anyone but he kind of felt pretty good because here he was sitting next to the president and Cowles was not.  Heath said she was married and attending the university when all this happened. “It just happened and I said ‘why weren’t we down at the train depot saying goodbye.’ I don’t understand that part.” Heath figures Hubert Humphrey may have been behind the trip because they were good friends. “Hubert asked how his trip went and I think there must have been something there. And yet the West Central Daily Tribune was the most liberal paper in outstate Minnesota.” Kodet said it was a big thrill for her dad when JFK gave him a couple of pens with the White House and the president’s name engraved on them. “Our sister Jennifer admired people, she admired Jackie Kennedy and was at that age where she was fascinated by people like that, famous people, so he wanted to make sure that Jennifer and his son John got some kind of a memento because they were the two youngest in the family.” Heath said her dad told her there was no grace said at the table, but he didn’t know why. There was a special glass near his plate he thought might be apple cider, but he forgot to drink it because he was a bit wrapped up in what was going on. He wrote that after dinner Senator Mickelson asked if he drank what was in that glass to which OBA replied no. That’s when he found out it was wine in that glass. He then wrote “it’s a good thing we had neglected it because Mickelson is always ribbing us about our temperance beliefs and he would surely have had us over a barrel by claiming that OBA is dry at home but drinks abroad.” Heath said her dad was a widower. He had been married before and had lost a little daughter. “He married my mother in 1940. There were six kids and he was almost 43 when I was born so we thought we had a grandpa. He loved us dearly and was the best father he could have ever been.” She said it wasn’t until they grew up and in looking back at his life, they realized all the things he did, not only in the community but all over, included singing in the church. “We thought this old man was telling us what to eat for breakfast every day and making us eat whole wheat toast and prunes and all that kind of stuff, but found out later he was an interesting person.” Kodet said her father wrote an editorial after JFK was assassinated and in that editorial talked about his impression of the president, how he seemed boyish yet had intelligent, earnest eyes. He also talked about how the president made him feel at home, how he listened to what little they had to say, how they walked out of his office into an outside court and into the great dining room still chatting. “The great man and the country editor who had been so privileged for he (the president) was a courteous listener and even wanted to hear what little people thought, a kindly man with no aloofness traced to either position or wealth.” In that editorial he also talked about JFK’s kindness and the gift of the pens, and how he didn’t have to do this, and how the gift came from his gracious thoughtful heart. He said as he sat in the waiting room waiting for his audience with JFK, the president’s wife and daughter, Jackie and Carolyn, came to greet him, how happy they were, and how the president smiled at them. “How little we all realized the dark, terrible thing to come.” Heath said her mom and dad were always busy doing stuff. “Mother was raising six kids and she didn’t have much interest in politics.” Somewhere along the line OBA ran for the state senate three times and lost. Heath said she figures her dad was one of the most honest people to walk the face of the earth but he was controversial and in a way stood for things people didn’t like. On occasion his children went campaigning with him. “One time my little brother went with him, he was short, a little overweight and had a mustache, and this woman came up to my dad and said ‘oh, I haven’t met Mrs. Augustson yet.’ John never went campaigning with him again.” Kodet said she’s pretty sure, by the editorials her dad wrote after JFK was assassinated, that he was absolutely devastated. “We all were, the whole nation was. I was at Gustavus then in my second year and my dad wrote me a letter which began with the words ‘I write with heavy heart.’” That was OBA, she said, that was how he wrote. That letter went on to say, President Kennedy had been shot. “It deeply affected him as it did all of us but I think the fact that he had personal contact with JFK that he just couldn’t believe it.” Both Heath and Kodet said they have hundreds of stories to tell about their dad and mom, one of which is how their mom always made their dad’s favorite cake. Little did he know that cake contained rum as one of the ingredients. OBA was one of a kind and this reporter was privileged to have worked for him for about ten years. OBA always went with his beliefs and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind on any subject. He was also a good listener and kept his thumb on what was going on in the newspaper world. – Bev Ahlquist

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