When I Changed Sides In Politics

Mary Jo Shannon
Mary Jo Shannon

Political debate has never appealed to me. I dislike conflict and hesitate to engage in discussions where opinions are at odds. I would not likely carry a poster or give a speech supporting a candidate.  Nor would political signs sprout in my front yard. So this incident that occurred when I was a senior in college is entirely out of character.

At Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, classes had just begun for the fall term, 1952. The presidential campaign between Dwight David Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson was in full swing and many of the college students were eager to demonstrate for the candidate of their choice.  Republicans and Democrats made posters and planned to parade down Frederick Street to Central Avenue, then down to Beverly Street and up New Street, returning to the college. But posters seemed so ordinary. What stunning exhibition would proclaim their candidate superior and also reveal the ingenuity of his Mary Baldwin supporters?

I listened with interest to various suggestions of each party, but shied away from participating until the Democrats came up with a terrific idea. One of the students contacted a local farmer who agreed to let them borrow a donkey.  The problem they faced was finding a girl who would agree to ride the animal. No one came forth.

This idea is just too clever to fail, I thought.  I grew up on a farm and for several years had a donkey as a pet.  Why shouldn’t I ride the beast? So what if my parents were staunch Republicans? So what if I hoped Eisenhower would win the election? Surely one little old donkey ride would not swing the vote against him! I just would not let my folks know I volunteered to help the “Dems. “Democrat”  was a dirty word in our family.  Now, if the Republicans had acquired an elephant, well, I might have remained loyal to the party.

The fact that I attended Mary Baldwin as a day student created a slight problem.  I would have to conceal my plan from my family. I packed a pair of blue jeans and my straw hat in a shopping bag and removed my “I like Ike” button from my jacket, storing it temporarily in my pocket. I mumbled something about needing to prepare for a skit and headed for school early on the day of the parade.

The loyal Democrats were excited and extremely grateful. I felt a twinge of guilt when they attached a “Stevenson for President” poster to the back of my shirt, but I mounted the donkey anyway and trotted down Frederick Street.

People on the street stopped to wave and I waved back. I truly enjoyed the experience – until I saw my father standing among the crowd! Why did he have to come to town today? I pulled my hat down to shield my face and turned my head in the opposite direction, hoping he would not recognize me. The donkey trotted on and I breathed a sigh of relief as we turned at the corner to go around the block and head back to the college.

At supper that evening my dad talked about his trip to the hardware store and the parade he watched. I paid close attention to the potatoes and carrots on my plate while he described costumes and posters, the band instruments, and finally the donkey.

“I don’t know which was the biggest jackass – the four-legged one or the one on its back,” he commented drolly.

I don’t know for sure whether or not he recognized me. He didn’t ask – and I didn’t tell.

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