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Austin McCarthy: Remembering his famous brother’s early life

Eugene McCarthy campaigning in New Haven, Conn., in 1968.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Eugene McCarthy campaigning in New Haven, Conn., in 1968.

He wasn’t as famous as his older brother, but Dr. Austin McCarthy was every bit as accomplished in his own field as the late Sen. Eugene McCarthy was in the political arena. Dr. McCarthy was a respected surgeon who died on June 18 at the age of 90 in Willmar, Minn. Ironically, he got his early training while treating American servicemen wounded in the Pacific in World War II, nearly a quarter century before his older brother helped make history by opposing another war in the region.

Dr. McCarthy spent his entire 38-year career in Willmar, not far from the town of Watkins where he and his brother and two sisters grew up, before he retired in 1986.  I interviewed him in 1970 while writing a book about Sen. McCarthy, who turned the political world upside down two years earlier by challenging President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy, and helping keep his fellow Minnesota Democrat, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, from beating Richard Nixon. Sen. McCarthy’s near-victory in the 1968 New Hampshire primary drove LBJ from office and set the stage for a series of historic events that helped reshape the political landscape, even to the present day.

Dr. McCarthy was helpful in understanding his famous brother’s early life, which is the starting point for any biography. I quoted him extensively in a chapter that I called “Genesis of an Enigma,” including about how his mother, a gentle and deeply religious woman of German descent, was the dominant influence on her children while her less gentle outspoken Irish husband was absent for long periods of time while buying livestock in the West.

“Mother was the one who really raised us,” Dr. McCarthy told me. “Dad would be on the road six and eight weeks at a time buying cattle and horse and then he’d be home for four or five days and go again. But mother was always there.”

I went back and reread the transcript of my interview with Dr. McCarthy after his death. Here are some excerpts, many of which I didn’t have room for in my book, that I think help explain his enigmatic brother.

Q: You were talking about your mother. You said she was there all the time, a gentle, quiet person?

A:
Yes, I think this is true. We respected her for this. This was her approach to many problems. And the fact that she didn’t become excited or angry with us. And I think that this had the effect – I don’t know about Gene, but this was certainly true of me – we no longer reacted in anger and with words that you’re going to regret later.

Q: You said she was a deeply religious person.

A:
Very, very religious. Religious in attending church, in participating in functions, in home prayers, things of this nature. Not just to show us; I think she believed in it.  Even on the most bitterly cold winter mornings, she’d walk the two and a half blocks to St. Anthony’s Church to Mass, and she regularly led her children in prayer at home. She didn’t do this just to set an example for us. She really believed in it. I’d say she was a saintly person.

The younger brother
I asked Dr. McCarthy if he understood his older brother, who died in 2005. “No, I don’t think I understand him. We’ve never been very close in the sense of seeing each other. But we’ve never been very far apart in the sense of having any difficulties. The times that I’ve seen Gene have been very short, very fleeting intervals. During these times, we’ve been more concerned about small talk, how’s Dad doing and the family, and so forth.”

Dr. McCarthy’s mother died in 1945 when he was in the service. Earlier, he followed his brother to St. John’s University, the nearby Benedictine university and prep school where Eugene, who went there for his senior year in high school and then college — at the insistence of the Benedictine priest at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church — compiled a brilliant academic record.

I asked what it was like living in his brother’s shadow. “It was kind of an unfortunate thing that I had to follow in his footsteps. Gene spent all his time studying, and his grades were always excellent. Then I would have to plug along with something less than what Gene would get. Acceptable, but not on a par.

“The first thing I recall is getting into an English class, which I didn’t have any business being in because Gene was in this same class. It was book analysis or something like that. There were only 12 or 14 of us and it got just to be a discussion between the teacher, Fr. Dunstan Tucker, and Gene, on what they thought about these books. Most of the rest of us just sat there, wondering whether we belonged at all.”

Was he was close to his brother at St. John’s, I asked. “Actually, I saw a quite a bit of him that particular year. I played hockey and baseball with him on the school teams. In fact, I saw more of him that year than I have in any subsequent years.”

‘The fists were flying’
Dr. McCarthy described his brother’s athletic skills in a manner that presaged his political skills. “Gene was a good hockey player [but] he was more of a tricky hockey player. Certain melees would get started and he would get out unscathed while the fists were flying and the blood was flowing.”

I asked if he was the instigator of those fights? “Well, he had something to do with them — a little trip here or there, a little nudge. He would come out unscathed while the battle was going on.”

Dr. McCarthy said his brother often used sports references, as when he later said about coaching football, “You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it’s important.” He noted that in 1972, when Sen. McCarthy was running for president for the second time, he said, “We’re just going to float around the net for a little while waiting for a loose puck.”

But it was Dr. McCarthy’s recollections about his father’s reactions to his sons playing baseball at St. John’s and for the Watkins team in the amateur Great Soo League in Stearns County that I found most interesting.

“He thought we were out of our minds for playing baseball, and getting our fingers hurt.  He said, ‘All you kids have ever done is go to school and play baseball.’ But as he got a little older, he became a kind of irate fan. He’d get made at the umpire. At the same time, he wouldn’t admit that he was interested in the game.”

Life in politics
So how come his brother got into politics and you didn’t, I asked.

“I guess he was exposed to it by the things he went into — political science, sociology, history. I was never a great reader. Gene was a great reader. I remember I went up to Warren, Minnesota, when I was about 18 or 19 to pitch for their baseball team. My appendicitis ruptured and I spent 30, 35 days in the hospital up there and when I came home, Gene was supposed to be there, sort of babysitting me in the summertime. He spent most of his time running next door to my aunt and uncle’s to get the Harvard Classics and reading them. He’d be reading Plato and Aristotle and the rest of them. He would sit out on the porch for three or four hours reading. Then, all of a sudden, he would decide he was going to baseball practice. And I probably hadn’t got two words out of him all day.”

In 1968, Dr. McCarthy campaigned for his brother in Indiana, Nebraska and South Dakota, where he appeared on the same platform as the former astronaut, Ohio Sen. John Glenn, who was supporting Bobby Kennedy. “Everybody knew who John Glenn was and nobody knew who I was,” he said. “I don’t even remember what I talked about, but I think John Glenn influenced them more than I did because of his trip to the moon.”

Dr. McCarthy also went to the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where he helped treat Sen. McCarthy’s young anti-war protestors when they were beaten up by Chicago cops.

“Gene said, ‘Why don’t you go down and help [Dr.] Bill Davidson [a St. John’s faculty member]. He’s got more than he can handle. Then I went down and shortly after that, Gene came down. He thought it was terrible, just absolutely awful. Brutal. He said that he thought this was terrible that this would happen to Americans in America, or something like that.”

Albert Eisele, a former Washington correspondent for the Duluth News-Tribune and St. Paul Dispatch Pioneer Press, is editor-at-large and founding editor of The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress.

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