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When Humphrey was V.P.

Family, housekeeper reminisce about life at Waverly household

Left to right, Hubert’s grandson Jordan, Hubert’s son Bob, and the Humphrey longtime housekeeper Irene Woitalla standing around the bust of Hubert H. Humphrey in Railroad Park in Waverly. Photo by Scott Thoma

Waverly looks like many other small towns in Minnesota. It’s a quiet and clean community located in Wright County, 35 miles west of the Twin Cities. Citizens in this town of 1,350 all seem to know one another based on the multitude of greetings for one another at various establishments. Like many small towns, some of the buildings in the business district now stand empty. And traffic through town is light.

But backing up 50 years, the town was buzzing with activity as Vice President Hubert Humphrey and his wife, Muriel, owned a home on neighboring Lake Waverly and often visited for several days during his tenure in Washington.

Imagine Secret Service men running surveillance both in town and on the Humphrey property.

Even a boat with a pair of Secret Service men would be stationed 24 hours a day on the lake to watch and record any suspicious activity whenever the Humphreys were in town.

In this 1966 photo, Hubert (in white shirt) shakes hand with an unidentified man after getting off the helicopter at his home in Waverly. Contributed photo

The sound of a pair of military helicopters in and around the area drew attention to the townspeople and neighboring communities as it signified that the second most important man in the country would soon be arriving, along with additional Secret Service men.

Political figures, from mayors to representatives to senators, would arrive on occasion to discuss various political issues with the vice president in his office at his home.

“It sure wasn’t like it is now,” laughed Irene Woitalla, who was the Humphreys’ housekeeper for 13 years. “There was secret service people all over and there were people in town watching the helicopter land across the lake. Everyone was kind of excited and nervous at the same time.”

When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Lyndon Johnson, then his vice president, was sworn in as the 37th president of the United States. The vice president position remained vacant until Johnson ran for president two years later and chose Humphrey to be his running mate. Johnson, however, elected not to run for a second term, and in 1968, Humphrey chose to run for president, winning the primaries to become the Democratic candidate.

Humphrey, however, lost in a close race to Republican candidate Richard Nixon.

Humphrey, who also ran for president but lost in the primaries in his bid to become the Democratic nominee in 1952, 1960 and 1972, was the favorite to become the Democratic candidate in 1976 and was urged by many to run for president. But Humphrey chose not to run, and Jimmy Carter secured the bid and went on to become president. It was later learned that Humphrey’s reason for not running was that he had learned he had terminal bladder cancer.

Humphrey died at his home in Waverly in 1978 at age 66, surrounded by family and friends. Before he passed away, Humphrey phoned Nixon to invite him to his funeral. Nixon readily accepted.

“Jimmy Carter was president, and he ordered Air Force One to pick up my father’s body at the Minneapolis Airport,” recalled Bob Humphrey. “The military helicopters took him from Waverly to the Cities. They then had memorial services at the state Capitol and also at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.”

The Humphreys, who were married for 41 years, are laid to rest together in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Humphrey was also a former mayor of Minneapolis and a United States senator from 1949-64 and again from 1971-78. After his death, Muriel Humphrey took his seat in the Senate.

When Muriel passed away, former Vice President Walter Mondale told the press: “Together they helped change this country to a better, fairer, more decent society. Half of what we credit Hubert for we should credit Muriel (for), because they were a team from beginning to end.”

Woitalla still lives in Waverly in a home on Lake Waverly directly across from the former Humphrey property.

“They treated me so well,” she said about the Humphrey family. “Mrs. Humphrey and I became very good friends. I helped her pick out the rocks for the fireplace they had built in the home.

“And Mr. Humphrey and I would go for walks together, and he would tell me about why he voted for certain issues. Or, if I was having a problem with something, he would talk to me about it. He always had a way of making me feel better.”

Irene Woitalla, a longtime housekeeper for the Hubert Humphrey’s family, hugs Bob Humphrey at the start of the interview for this story. The two last saw each other 12 years ago. They were joined by Bob’s son, Jordan. Photo by Scott Thoma

On June 25 of this year, it became a reunion of sorts for Woitalla as set up by this reporter. The doorbell rang at her home, and as she answered it, she belted out “Bob!”

Woitalla and Robert Humphrey, the third of four children to Hubert and Muriel Humphrey, hugged for several moments.

“I hadn’t seen her since the dedication of my father’s bust (in 2005) in Waverly,” said Bob, 73, whose appearance (sans the glasses) and voice match those of his late father. “What a wonderful lady she was to all of us and what a privilege it was for us to have her.”

Bob’s older brother, Hubert Humphrey III, 75, more commonly referred to as “Skip,” followed in his father’s footsteps as a Minnesota political figure and still lives in the Cities. Douglas, 69, Bob’s younger brother, also still lives in Minnesota. Nancy, the oldest of the four Humphrey children, was born in 1939 and passed away in 2003.

Accompanying Bob on the trip to Waverly in June was his son, Jordan, 31, a lawyer in the Twin Cities. Jordan was not yet born when Hubert died, but he did get to spend time with his grandmother for a number of years before her passing in 1998.

“As far as I know, this is the first time I’ve ever been to (my grandparents’) property,” said Jordan, who took photos and recorded the conversations throughout the day in Waverly. “I wish I would have met (my grandfather).”

Seated at Woitalla’s home, the conversation quickly turned into a reminiscing session. Also visiting on this day was Woitalla’s next-door neighbor and friend Rosemary Jacobson, who once did the laundry at the Humphrey home for a brief period.

“There were always some celebrities or top political figures at the house,” recalled Woitalla. “Lorne Greene (who played Ben Cartwright on the television series Bonanza) loved it there. He was a good friend of the Humphreys.

“(Late comedian) Jimmy Durante came there a few times and sang and played piano with Mrs. Humphrey. I can’t remember everyone that came, though. I know Hoss (Dan Blocker of Bonanza) was planning to come here, but he died (of a heart attack) a week or so before he was supposed to come. (First Lady) Lady Bird Johnson came here once or twice.”

Woitalla thinks about the Humphreys often, telling Bob, “Every time I make potato salad, I think of your mom. She taught me a way to cut the potatoes to get the most flavor out of them.”

The former housekeeper then transformed into a tour guide at the request of her out-of-town visitors, leading them out to the former Humphrey property, which is now New Beginnings, an inpatient drug and alcohol recovery facility.

The Humphreys bought the six-lot property they dubbed “Triple H” in 1956. They had been living in the Twin Cities and wanted a lake property that was fairly close to their home. A friend found the Waverly property for them, and they immediately fell in love with it. It included a boat house and guest house. The Humphreys also had horses, donkeys, sheep and chickens on the property.

“Dad used to play bullfighter with the donkeys,” laughed Bob. “He would get a towel and use that for his cape. It was pretty funny.”

There was also a boat house for the Secret Service men’s boat, as well as a blue landing light high atop a pole used by helicopter pilots as a guide to land in a large open field on the east side of the property.

New Beginnings has made several additions to the home and property, but it still felt like the same place that Woitalla and Bob Humphrey remembered.

“There used to be a rock cave on the property,” said Woitalla. “The Secret Service people used it as a bomb shelter. I used to have to clean that, too, and it was full of spiders. It’s not there anymore, though.

When Hubert Humphrey would come home to Waverly, he didn’t get off the helicopter and plop down on a chair in his home to relax.

“He would be flying all over the world and then come home and right away would start to pick up sticks in the woods,” said Bob, chuckling. “And then he would sweep the garage. He liked things neat and orderly.”

An administrator from New Beginnings allowed the touring group to tour the inside of the former Humphrey home.

“That was where my parents’ bedroom was, that was my bedroom, that was my father’s office,” Bob blurted out while revisiting the past.

Woitalla, who recalled being forced to have security clearance before she was allowed to clean in the Humphrey home, then peered into the door of Humphrey’s former office and recalled an important item that once sat on a table in the room.

“There was a red phone in there,” she said. “It was a ‘hot line’ to the president. I was so scared that I might bump it and knock it off the receiver when I was cleaning or dusting, so I just skipped it. Mr. Humphrey would tease me about it and tell me to clean it because he knew I was nervous about it.”

In one part of the house where an addition was constructed years ago, was once an outdoor patio area that had a donkey etched into the concrete—a symbol for the Democratic party. Carpeting in the room now covers it up.

“If you ever take the carpet out,” said Jordan Humphrey to the administrator, “there’s a donkey under there somewhere.”

Next to the patio area was a swimming pool in the shape of the state of Minnesota. Although you can clearly see the shape of the state, the pool is now filled with landscape rock and shrubbery.

“I used to swim there a lot,” said Bob.

“The Humphreys used to entertain out here a lot,” echoed Woitalla. “I used to help Mrs. Humphrey decorate for the parties. We had floating candles in the water and everything.”

Hubert Humphrey referred to Waverly as “the peace of my world.”

On his way to the vehicle in the parking lot to leave for the trip back to the Cities, Bob stopped and looked back at the home.

“My father would have made a great president,” he said. “He was loved all over the world. He loved it here, too. He always told us not to let it be destroyed.

“My parents would have been happy to see that their home is now (a rehabilitation facility). They would have been glad that it is a place that is helping others.”

There once was a museum in Waverly that housed many of the Humphrey items, but the museum burned down in 1997. The town planned to rebuild the museum, and had many more Humphrey items to place in it, but was unable to meet the date of their funding goal. Those items, such as Humphrey’s 1926 Model T and his snowmobile called “The Happy Warrior,” are now found in the Wright County Museum in Buffalo.

A large bust of Humphrey that sits in Railroad Park in Waverly is a small reminder of the importance of this man to not only Waverly, but to the entire nation. That is also demonstrated by the myriad buildings, monuments, schools and organizations named in his honor across the nation. Some of those include the former Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, the Hubert H. Humphrey Terminal at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, and even the Hubert H. Humphrey Building of the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C.

Waverly’s elementary school is named after Humphrey, as are schools in Albuquerque, N.M., and Bolingbrook, Ill.

Left to right, Doug Humphrey, former President Bill Clinton, Bob Humphrey and Skip Humphrey unveil a statue outside Minneapolis City Hall during a dedication ceremony in 2012. Contributed photo

A 7-foot statue dedicated in 2012 now stands outside city hall in Minneapolis. Humphrey’s three sons, along with former President Bill Clinton, unveiled the black velvet cloth to reveal the statue.

“All my life, I loved and admired Hubert Humphrey. He believed that public service was a noble endeavor,” Clinton said that day. “He believed that his adversaries need not be his enemies. He believed that with a happy heart and an open ear and an honest dialog, a lot of conflicts could be resolved. And he lived his life to do it.”

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