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A prophetic encounter

It was the autumn of 1956, and I was a freshman at Urbana High School. Estes Kefauver, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, was coming to town. My father Walter, an electrician at the University of Illinois and a devout Democrat, thought it would be a good idea for me to interview him. After all, I was a staff writer for the school paper. We neatly printed a little name tag, and attached it to the lapel of my sports jacket. "PRESS!" it said. "Roger Ebert--Urbana High School Echo."

We learned that Kefauver was spending the night in a guest room of the Illini Union building, on campus. At 7 a.m. we were at the Union. Dad, dressed in the grey work clothes of a University electrician, of course knew his way around the building. He positioned me outside the door of Senator Kefauver's guest room, and waited down the hall. There were a couple of Secret Service agents who smiled, said the senator would be out before long, and advised me to wait right where I was. This was in the days before assassinations. Kefauver is not much remembered now. He was the senator from Tennessee, chairman of a famous Senate crime commission, and he ran against Adlai Stevenson for the Democratic presidential nomination. When Stevenson won the nomination, he picked Kefauver as his running mate instead of John F. Kennedy. That was just as well for Kennedy, who was fresh for the presidential nomination in 1960.

Tennessee's native son, Davy Crockett, was big on TV, and Kefauver wore his coonskin hat as a trademark. But he was not wearing one when he opened the door of his room a few minutes later. One of his aides nodded at me and said something under his voice, and Kefauver shook my hand and said he understood I was the youngster who wanted to interview him.

I don't remember what we talked about. I do remember the central issue of Kefauver's 1956 campaign, however, because he hammered on it in every speech. It was the danger of nuclear fallout. Atomic tests being authorized by the Eisenhower administration, he charged, were sending dangerous levels of radiation floating across America. He produced charts showing how the radiation fell as rain, was concentrated by the grass and by the cows that ate the grass, and then concentrated again in milk.

"The American people are being given radiation poisoning by their own government," he said in his speeches. "It won't kill anyone this year or next year, but in 20 or 30 years we will pay the price." The Eisenhower-Nixon team belittled Kefauver's charges and painted him as some kind of a nut. Ike won in a landslide. Forty-one years passed. On Aug. 1, according to The New York Times, the National Cancer Institute reported that fallout from nuclear tests in Nevada in the 1950s "may have caused 10,000 to 75,000 thyroid cancers, 70 percent of which have not yet been diagnosed."

"Three quarters of those cases are expected to develop in people who were younger than 5 at the time of exposure, which occurred mainly in 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1957," the institute was quoted as saying. The exposure came from "a radioactive form of iodine...that is concentrated in the milk of cows and goats because they eat grass that has been contaminated with the chemical."

Kefauver was patient and kind with the 13-year-old kid he talked to that morning. I got a front-row seat for his speech in the University Auditorium, and followed him out to his car. His last words to me were, "Now you remember what I said!"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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