Modern Americans have no idea how immense the reputation of William Jennings Bryan was in the US 120 years ago. Thrice the candidate of the Democratic Party for President, Jennings was a giant of his day, known far and wide as a great orator and swayer of the minds of men. He served in the House of Representatives and as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State for a time. His Cross of Gold speech is one of the greatest in American History, and the character of the Wizard of Oz is loosely based on his personality.
By 1919, much had happened in the United States. The Roosevelt Era, the Progressives, a world war, and the Spanish Flu epidemic had all taken the spotlight away from the great man. He still traveled the nation giving speeches to whomever would listen. Salem, Illinois, was the fortunate recipient of a Bryan visit at the end of the school term, as he agreed to be the commencement speaker for the local high school.
You may well wonder why such a famous person as William Jennings Bryan would agree to speak to the graduating class of a city that protected a mere 3,800 people. The easy answer is that Salem was Bryan’s hometown, and he loved it so. He still had family in the area. When his hometown high school asked, of course Bryan would agree to speak.
Most commencement addresses are immediately forgotten, but this one stands out–but not because of what Bryan said. No, the reason the proceedings are memorable is the actions of one of the graduating seniors, a boy named John. John, for reasons that are still not clear to this day, found the entire speech of Bryan to be laughable. He loudly sniggered for almost the entire time the great man gave his address. Bryan, no stranger to being heckled, thought that a sharp glare at the giggling bespeckled student would silence him, but nothing seemed to stop the lad’s laughter.
When the speech ended and the applause died down, John apparently stopped laughing. After the proceedings, embarrassed local officials all made their apologies to Bryan who magnanimously shook off the offense. Boys will be boys, he shrugged. John’s friends were also somewhat upset, especially since they knew John to be a shy young man. This behavior was completely against his personality–which made it even more strange.
6 years passed.
John went to college and got a couple of degrees and entered education. He taught physics, biology, and coached football. As fate would have it, William Jennings Bryan came to his town for a court case. The pair were reintroduced. “I don’t think you would remember me, Mr. Bryan,” John said as the two men shook hands.
“Of course, I remember you,” Bryan said with a smile. “Salem, Illinois.”
“That’s right!” John said.
Bryan added, “How can I forget you, John Scopes?”