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Brief Biography of Lee Warren Metcalf

Page history last edited by Maggie 7 months, 3 weeks ago

Lee Metcalf stands on a hill overlooking Canyon Ferry Lake,

circa October 1965.

Lot 31 B1/7.15




Brief Biography of Lee Warren Metcalf


By Matthew M. Peek

Metcalf CLIR Project Photograph Archivist

Montana Historical Society


October 2014 




This biography is based on a public program written and presented by the author at the Montana Historical Society entitled, "A Life Undaunted: Senator Lee Metcalf’s Life and Work, 1911-1978."  The program was presented on Thursday, May 15, 2014, as part of the outreach efforts for MHS's Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) "Hidden Collections" Lee Metcalf Photograph and Film Collections grant project.  This biography does not include citations, as the original public program was only intended to bring awareness to the public regarding Metcalf's life and work, particularly prior to 1960. As more demand has increased for cited information about Metcalf, MHS Research Center has decided to include this brief biography without citations, in order to make the information regarding Metcalf available as quickly as possible. This biography was created by Peek from hundreds of primary records from the Lee Metcalf Papers (MC 172), newspaper articles, and first-hand accounts given in interviews with CLIR project archivist Peek.


In order to make sure the resources used as part of the CLIR project to interpret Senator Metcalf's life are not lost to time, copies of the primary resources used by Peek to create the following biography were organized into a Senator Lee Metcalf research collection, to be housed in the MHS Archives. The research collection includes copies of original materials, newspaper articles, Metcalf friends and staff members interview notes, and other biographical information about Senator Lee Metcalf which has never-before been located, or which has not been made available to the public in a centralized group of records. All information in this biography was carefully checked by Peek, and is accurate to the best of his knowledge based on the information provided by historical records.


To view a YouTube video of Peek's MHS public program on Metcalf's life and work, follow this link.



Lee Metcalf: From Birth to Law School (1911-1936)


Lee Warren Metcalf was born on January 28, 1911 in Stevensville, Montana, to Harold E. Metcalf and Rhoda Ann Smith Metcalf (daughter of a wealthy Ravalli pioneer and investor). He was the older of two children, having a sister Julia M. Metcalf who was born on March 10, 1912. Metcalf’s grandparents had spent a considerable amount of time in California prior to Lee’s birth. When he was about one year old, Lee’s parents moved the family to Puento (present Covina area), California, so Rhoda Metcalf could be close to her father Robert C. Smith, who had moved in 1910 to the Los Angeles area. Young Lee grew up in Los Angeles-area until the age of five. Later as teenagers, Lee, Julia, and Rhoda would visit California and friends during summers. By 1916, the Metcalfs had returned to Stevensville, where the family had a 300-acre farm just outside the town. Harold Metcalf was appointed an assistant cashier at the First State Bank of Stevensville by 1919 (his father-in-law being an investor in the bank). Lee attended grade school and high school in Stevensville. While in high school, he took a public speaking class, but was scared to give speeches in front of people—which led him later to fight to overcome this through politics. He played high school football and basketball in the winter in high school. As a youth, his parents insisted Lee and Julia be exposed to culture and education, allowing them to regularly attend Chautauqua events and read the newspaper.


In 1928, Lee Metcalf built a crystal radio set on which he listened to political speeches and campaigns of Robert LaFollette, George Norris, Burton K. Wheeler, and other populist and liberal Democratic politicians. It was his introduction to Populist politics. His mother Rhoda exhibited a strong influence on him as a young man, offering him political advice, folk wisdom, and the experiences from her life as the daughter of an financially and politically-influential father. Rhoda was a strong, talented woman who remained engaged and close with Lee throughout his life. When Lee was a youth, she imparted education to him, having him read through her father’s subscription to the St. Louis Globe Democrat newspaper to learn about politics, American government, and current affairs. Lee plowed the family farm fields and worked the farm in the summer. The farm was a means of self-reliance and simple, agrarian lifestyle the Metcalfs chose to live by.


On May 16, 1928, Lee Metcalf graduated from Stevensville High School in a class of seventeen students. Lee’s grandfather Robert C. Smith died in Long Beach, California, on May 4, 1928, and the family had a funeral a week before Lee’s graduation. Lee went on to attend one year at Montana State University (MSU) in Missoula, Montana (later the University of Montana). He entered university in the fall of 1928, studying history. At MSU, he pledged in the Sigma Chi fraternity and lived in South Hall on campus. He played offensive tackle for Montana State Grizzlies football at one point, though not a starting tackle. He was a Rhodes Scholar candidate in his freshman year (1928-1929), though he did not receive the award. Lee left MSU in 1929, when his family moved to Alhambra, California. In 1930, Lee Metcalf moved to Downey, California, where he lived with his parents after they moved again. Lee had taken a year or two off of college, working in 1931 as gardener for the City Board of Education of Alhambra, California. It was through this job that he gained a life-long passion for horticulture and gardening.


Lee would enroll between 1930 and 1932 at Leland Stanford Junior University in the Palo Alto, California, area. He studied history and economics, took two years of Latin, and joined the Sigma Chi fraternity at the university. While at Stanford, he worked two to three jobs throughout college to pay for expenses. Confusion surrounds his actual graduation date from Stanford. According to an account by Lee Metcalf’s wife Donna, he graduated in 1933. According to newspaper accounts and his own campaign biographies, Lee graduated in 1934 from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in History and Economics (pre-law course). However, according to a Stanford University graduation program from 1936, Metcalf did not receive his degree until 1936 (likely as a part of his later law program). Lee’s sister Julia studied at MSU in the early 1930s. In 1933 or 1934, Lee returned to Montana to attend from 1934-1936 the Montana State University Law School in Missoula. Mike Mansfield, Metcalf’s later congressional ally, was a history professor during Metcalf’s time at MSU.


Metcalf was an exceptional law student and active in student politics. In September 1935, he received an MSU scholarship for outstanding scholarship. Metcalf was a member of the Missoula club of the Montana Young Democrats. Lee met Donna Albertine Hoover sometime between 1934 and 1935. Donna was a journalism student at MSU, two years Lee’s younger. She wrote a column for school newspaper, and was a successful college journalist who received a number of awards and honors. She also was the editor of the MSU yearbook. Donna was very timid when she was in college, but used her words to a great advantage—a trait Lee admired.

The two began dating sometime between 1934 and 1935. Donna graduated in June 1935 from MSU with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, but went on to work at MSU as secretary School of Journalism. She continued to date Lee until he finished law school and became established in his career. Metcalf graduated with a law degree (LL.D.) from MSU in June 1936, and was at the top of his law class at age 25. He graduated with Peter G. Meloy, who would become a life-long friend and political ally.


Lee Metcalf: Beginning of a Political Career to His Death (1936-1978)


Metcalf’s political and legal career heated up immediately after he graduated from MSU in 1936. He was admitted to the Montana state bar in 1936, and opened a law practice in Stevensville, Montana. He was defeated by a fellow law school student for the position of law clerk for the state Supreme Court—one of only two positions in public office he would not win—and chose to run for state legislator instead. Metcalf declared for the Montana House of Representatives for Ravalli County in July 1936, being one of three Democrats running for the same office. Politically, Metcalf became the Stevensville Young Democrats club secretary; his role as a leader in the Young Democrats brought him into greater political influence locally, statewide, and nationally. Lee was involved with the 1936 Executive Committee meeting of the State Young Democratic club on June 14, 1936, in Ravalli County, which had Montana Attorney General candidate (later governor) John W. Bonner as the speaker. Metcalf became chairman of major 1936 state and national Democratic rallies and meets. For example, on September 25, 1936, he presided over a meeting at the American Theater in Stevensville, U.S. Senator James E. Murray gave a speech. On October 15, 1936, Metcalf chaired the Montana Democrats State Democratic Rally in Ravalli County at age 25. On October 23, 1936, Metcalf chaired the Ravalli County Young Democrats Club rally, which hosted U.S. Congress candidate Jerry J. O’Connell as a speaker.


During his 1936 state legislature candidacy, Metcalf was called a “legal stripling” due to his youth and inexperience in politics. Throughout the campaign, he drove around in a Chevy coupe covered with “Metcalf for Legislature” signs, as he did not believe in wasting materials by hanging up campaign posters everywhere. Lee related a story for years to his friends of how he gave up seeking votes on election night in 1936, thinking he would not win. His mom Rhoda asked if he had gone door-to-door in the Metcalfs’ neighborhood in Stevensville to ask for votes. Metcalf did not want to go, but his mom talked him into it late on the night of the election. Another story Lee told was of his parents convincing him to go talk with the leading Republican in Stevensville while he fished in the Bitterroot River. Eventually, Lee agreed and carried a fishing pole to the river (though he did not like fishing and was not planning to fish). He talked with the man, acting like he was fishing in order to start a conversation with him. The Republican ended up voting for Metcalf and telling others about Metcalf, saying how much he liked how Metcalf listened to him. On November 5, 1936, Metcalf got 1,861 votes, the second-leading vote getter and the top Democrat from Ravalli County; he won over Democrat Gib Strange by 331 votes. Lee spent $40 on the election (the equivalent of $477.36 in today’s money).


Before Metcalf entered office in the State Legislature, his Stevensville office was destroyed by a fire on December 23, 1936. Despite this hardship, Metcalf served in the 25th Montana Legislative Assembly (January 4-March 11, 1937). As a young, idealistic legislator, he began right away to make a difference. He attacked a bill to give the Montana governor the power to hire or fire any state employee. He introduced a proposal to investigate the State College Extension Service, in response to a constituent letter. He was one of the chief proponents for a large $1.057 million allotment for Montana universities to improve facilities. He introduced H. B. 83 (“Shyster Bill”), a measure aimed to make insurance companies co-defendants with drivers of automobiles in damage suits. He introduced the “collar-to-collar pay bill,” which called for mining companies to pay a miner from the time he went down into the mine to the time he came out. He introduced a 30-cent minimum wage bill that failed. He co-introduced H. B. 42, which would require that automobile owners register their cars in the county in which they reside (this is now the law in Montana). In 1937, the Legislature had over 400 bills to introduce and hear—only got to 160 by mid-February. Out of frustration at the end of the session, Metcalf wrote a 2½–column article in the Northwest Tribune on Thursday, March 11, 1937 entitled “State Law Makers Accomplish Little.” In the article, he reviewed the whole legislature bluntly, angry that ridiculous bills went through quickly, and bills with substance and necessity debated for long hours so as to keep their chances of passage at bay. He would say in the article that “All in all little of a constructive nature was accomplished, taking the long view the State of Montana really lost ground. . . . Once again the State of Montana is delivered over to the princes of privilege for another two years.”


Metcalf turned to positions during the 1937 state legislative session which were in the 1930s considered “radical”, even communist: “It wasn’t that I tried to become that way. But every time I met the issues on a logical, reasonable and rational basis, I found myself voting with the working-man, and all at once I was in trouble with the business community.” It was during his experience in the Montana legislature amidst the Great Depression and suspicion over President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, when Metcalf found what political ground he would stand on for the rest of his political life. Metcalf was tired of the legislative ineffectiveness and corporate interests, returning to private law practice in March 1937. In August 1937, Montana Attorney General Harrison J. Freebourn appointed Metcalf as the lowest-level assistant attorney general for the state (he replaced M. Kerr Beadle, who died in office). At age 26, Metcalf was the youngest assistant attorney general in state history. On February 27, 1939, Attorney General Freebourn was charged with graft by a special committee for the Montana House of Representatives, charged with taking protection money to allow individuals to install illegal slot machines in Montana. At age 28, Metcalf served as one of Freebourn’s two defense attorneys during impeachment hearings. On January 2, 1941, Metcalf was appointed First Assistant Attorney General for four days to fill out someone else’s term. Metcalf resigned as assistant attorney general in January 1941 after 3 ½ years of service to the state.


Metcalf would come to hate special interests, the Montana Power Company, the Investor-Owned utilities, and injustices for the common man while a young assistant attorney general.


In those days they didn’t even have a man assigned as a special attorney general for the Railroad and Public Service Commission, the outfit that set the rates. Defending the public interest in rate cases was just one of my many jobs. I also represented the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the auditor’s office, the Fish and Game Commission, and the Department of Agriculture.


I would carry my briefcase into the rate hearing as one of my many extracurricular duties, and there would be a whole retinue of attorneys for the private power industry. Some of them had been my instructors at law school, and I had only been out of school a couple of years. I resented the idea that the people’s representative was so thoroughly overwhelmed (Robert Sherrill, "Consider Lee Metcalf, The Invisible Senator," The Nation, May 10, 1971).


Metcalf’s life became quite full politically and personally from 1938 to 1941. As a young Democrat in 1936, he campaigned for Franklin Delano Roosevelt for President. From 1937 to 1939, he testified for the Wage-Hour Bill, which would provide workers with a 42-hour work week and minimum wage of 40-cents an hour (part of Metcalf’s 1937 legislative program). On August 21, 1938, Lee W. Metcalf and Donna A. Hoover married at the Hoover family house in Wallace, Idaho, and they spent their honeymoon in Canada before returning to Helena. In 1938-1939, the Metcalfs lived at 703 Hillsdale in Helena, Montana. In 1939-1940, Metcalf was the secretary and major leader of the Montana Franklin Delano Roosevelt for President Club, which brought him to the attention of President Roosevelt and his supporters. In 1941, Metcalf became the state director of procedural reform surveys for the Junior Bar Conference of the American Bar Association. In November 1941 while Metcalf visited in Washington, D.C., Democratic chiefs in the nation’s capital urged Metcalf to run for the U.S. Congress in 1942, impressed by his support for Roosevelt and his strength as a young Democratic leader in Montana.


Unfortunately, World War II interrupted the career path of Lee Metcalf on December 7, 1941, with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Metcalf enlisted in U.S. Army on March 16, 1942, at Fort Lewis in Washington State. He enlisted for the duration of WWII, plus 6 months, as a volunteer instead of being drafted. At the time of his enlistment, Metcalf was 6 ft. 1 in. tall and weighed 190 lbs. He trained with the 607th Tank Destroyer Battalion. He turned down a gift commission offered to him as a former government official in order to serve in the regular forces. During the summer of 1942 through November 1942, Metcalf was stationed at Camp Hood, Texas, on desert maneuvers with the tank destroyer battalion. He was commissioned as a Tank Destroyer officer in 1943, after 14 months service in the U.S. Army. Metcalf’s unit was stationed in Great Britain in 1944 as a staff officer in the 5th Corps before the Normandy invasion, having arrived in Britain in January 1944. Metcalf was allegedly demoted during WWII for knocking a staff sergeant down a staircase; though, the story goes that the sergeant was attacking another soldier or an African American soldier, and Lee was coming to his defense (these are rumors passed on by family and friends). Metcalf landed as part of Normandy invasion in June 1944 with his tank destroyer battalion. During the Battle of France, he served with the 7th Corps and the First Army. He served with the 1st Army, which later folded into the famed 9th Infantry Division. He finished the war as an officer with the 60th Infantry regiment. Metcalf was involved in five military campaigns in France, Belgium, and Germany.


When the U.S. military entered Germany in 1944, 2nd Lt. Lee Metcalf was named the prosecutor for the American Military Government (AMG) in Aachen, Germany. He helped to stablished first Military Government Court in Germany, and tried the first violator of the Allied Proclamations and Ordinances. Metcalf also tried the first German civilian in Germany by an American military government tribunal; the case was held for hearings in a former Nazi courtroom damaged by Allied artillery shelling. The military tribunal was established as a military summary court set up to try offenses for which a violator would serve up to a year in jail or would be fined $1,000. In this particular situation, a man was charged with failure to obey an order to leave a restricted area in Aachen for the refugee camp outside of the city. The man seemed not to have understood the situation; but, the court demanded that the military rule be obeyed, and disobedience—no matter the circumstance—would be punished. AMG judge Lt. William Rule said at the hearing that “While we will be fair, we will be harsh. We will not have these people disobey us.” The German man was sentenced to three months in jail, rather than simply fining the man. Metcalf requested the sentence begin from the date of the week before when the man was arrested, to at least lessen the intensity of the punishment.


After V-E Day on May 8, 1945, Metcalf named the AMG Public Safety Officer, placed in charge of supervising thousands of displaced persons, their refugee camps, and was responsible for their repatriation. He had 100,000 displaced person under his charge. Metcalf contributed his contributions to the post-war societal structure of Germany by helping to draft the ordinance for the first free local elections in Germany and supervised the free elections in Bavaria (serving in occupation duties in Bavaria). An article published in the Yanks U.S. Army newspaper, on December 15, 1944, entitled “The Army Governs Aachen” by Sgt. Mack Morris, featured an interview with Lee Metcalf. In the article, he explained patrols and security measures in Aachen and working with German citizens trained as police: “‘In France and Belgium,’ explained Lt. Metcalf, ‘we used resistance people as auxiliary police, but here there was nobody we could trust. So some field artillerymen who had fought their way across France into Germany were converted into an MP outfit to enforce the rules imposed on the people here. The MPs are posted over the city to check passes, and there are also patrols that make spot checks on suspicious–looking characters—such as young men who might be soldiers in civilian clothes—and guard against looting and so on.’”


Lee Metcalf returned to the United States in February 1946, and was released from active service on April 23, 1946. Lee’s father Harold died on January 12, 1946, while Lee was overseas. Metcalf later said in a 1971 interview: “I disliked the Army every day I was in it.” Lee Metcalf earned five battle stars and the Bronze Star for his service in WWII. While Lee Metcalf served in World War II from 1942 to April 1946, Donna Metcalf worked as a civilian employee at the Hanford Military Reservation in Washington State. Ironically, later Senator Metcalf’s committees oversaw many environmental issues at the Hanford site. Donna also began investing in land and properties during WWII—something she expanded later in life as an independent businesswoman.


Immediately after returning from his WWII service, Lee Metcalf declared on April 16, 1946, his candidacy for state associate justice, and he filed for the election on May 10, 1946. Metcalf ran against and defeated Albert Anderson, with Lee receiving 86,882 votes to Anderson’s 81,392 votes. Ironically, Metcalf’s mentor and boss, the former Montana Attorney General Freebourn, lost his campaign for Montana Supreme Court Chief Justice in 1946. Metcalf ran on his governance and legal acumen gained in WWII, which gave him a major edge in the election; he ran on veterans issues and the need for government to help all Americans. He once stated:  “[Lee Metcalf] stated that today the young veterans of the United States are looking to the government to take steps to alleviate domestic ills, such as unemployment and the housing shortage, something, he charged, private enterprise has failed to do. He said that the young veterans are looking to the Democratic party for assistance because of the party's progressive program” (Montana Standard, October 7, 1946, Pg. 5). Lee Metcalf was the youngest member of Montana Supreme Court when he began his term in January 1947, just before his 36th birthday when he took office.


The Metcalfs bought their first house in Helena after WWII at 1310 8th Avenue around 1947. They would purchase their long-term house at 1220 8th Avenue in August 1950 from Andrew and Cora McIntyre for around $4,000. Donna became involved with Democratic and women’s club activities, speaking at many state events. Lee served as the Helena Boy Scout District Commissioner in the late 1940s. Lee was involved with the Montana Bar Association and other legal associations, and was very active in the Montana Veterans of Foreign Wars. Lee Metcalf loved horticulture, and he constructed a greenhouse at the 1310 Eighth Avenue house. Lee maintained flower gardens and a small farm outside of Washington, D.C., and visited the National Arboretum frequently upon becoming a federal congressman. As a state supreme court justice, Metcalf became nationally-recognized for his rulings on tax issues, with many of his written court decisions on this topic become part of law school curriculum.


On April 30, 1952, Lee Metcalf declared to run for the U.S. Representative First District (Western District) seat held by Mike Mansfield, as Mansfield ran for the U.S. Senate. For his campaign, he announced an eight-point campaign policy:


"If I am nominated and elected I will during my term of office, support: Equalization of freight rates in the northwest; National defense appropriations at a level necessary to maintain our military strength to resist any foreign aggression; Extension of veterans’ benefits to Korean servicemen; Full and unified development of natural resources; Restoration of collective bargaining rights to organized labor; Full parity for all farm products; Use of income from federally owned submerged oil lands for education; Immediate statehood for Alaska and Hawaii. I will oppose: A national sales tax; Encroachment on fundamental liberties of the American people guaranteed by the bill of rights All forms of totalitarianism” ("Justice Files for Congress: Metcalf Seeks District Nomination," Billings Gazette, May 1, 1952).


Metcalf defeated his later friend Paul Cannon in the Democratic primary by 55 votes; and he defeated Rep. Wellington Rankin 55,679 votes to 54,086 votes.


After being formally sworn in as a U.S. Representative in January 1953, Lee Metcalf threw himself into the business of being a representative for the people of his state. From 1953 to 1960, Metcalf would serve on the following U.S. House of Representatives committees: Committee on Education and Labor; headed Mine Safety Subcommittee (1956); General Education Subcommittee; Labor Standards Subcommittee; Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs; Reclamation Subcommittee; Indian Affairs Subcommittee; Mining and Public Lands Subcommittee; Coal Research Subcommittee; and the Committee on Ways and Means. He was a Member—along with Rep. Gerald Ford (later U.S. President)—of the first U.S. House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration from 1958 to 1959. Metcalf co-founded between 1955 and 1959 the House Democratic Study Group (DSG). With Congressman Eugene McCarthy, Metcalf began the formation of the DSG in 1955 in McCarthy’s office, with the members of the group called “McCarthy’s Mavericks,” “McCarthy’s Marauders,” and "Metcalf's Marauders." The group was formally organized on September 9, 1959. This group helped get Senator John F. Kennedy elected president in 1960, and was the big reason for the liberal unity of the late 1950s and the mid-1960s.


Metcalf played a key role in major pieces of congressional legislation in the 1950s. In July 1956, Rep. Lee Metcalf was appointed the chairman of the  U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor’s Mine Safety Subcommittee, which held the first national mine safety inspection hearings of the mid-20th century. They conducted hearings in Duluth, MN; Butte, MT; Washington, D.C.; and Denver, CO. Metcalf began fighting for federal aid to education in 1953. He wanted improvements for rural and Native American reservation schools to be funded through a federal education program. Metcalf introduced with Sen. James E. Murray a federal aid to education bill in early 1958, and a revised bill in January 1959. Nicknamed “Mr. Education,” Lee Metcalf became the face of the federal education movement nation-wide until 1965. The National Defense Education Act (NDEA), signed into law on September 2, 1958, provided funding to United States education institutions at all levels as part of defense program emphasizing math and science education. Congressional acceptance of the NDEA killed the Metcalf education bill. On June 13, 1956, Rep. Metcalf introduced in the U.S. Congress H.R. 11751, the National Wilderness Preservation System bill. Metcalf’s version of the Wilderness Bill was one of the first four versions of the bill introduced in Congress, and placed him as one of the four U.S. congressmen most recognized for the introduction of the eventual Wilderness Act.


In March 1960, Rep. Lee Metcalf chose to run for the seat of Sen. James E. Murray, when it became evident that Murray was physically unable to serve effectively as a U.S. Senator and that he would likely lose the election to the Republican candidate. In the primaries, he went up against John W. Bonner, U.S. Rep. LeRoy Anderson, and John W. Mahan; Metcalf won the Democratic nomination. Metcalf in the state elections would face former U.S. Representative Orvin Fjare of Big Timber, Montana. Metcalf had not decided to run until the end of March 1960. He had no money for the campaign, and ran a low-budget campaign. Fjare ended up pushing Metcalf in a tight race, with Montana being the last state in the U.S. to declare a Senate seat winner. Metcalf won 140,331 votes to 136,281 votes on November 8, 1960.


Lee Metcalf and John F., Robert F., and Edward Kennedy were very close politically. Metcalf and the Democratic Study Group had been the major reason John F. Kennedy received Democratic national backing for the 1960 Presidential election. JFK trusted Metcalf and their social philosophies were very similar—particularly on conservation issues. Metcalf saw some of his greatest political success during the period influenced by President Kennedy’s administration, from 1961 to 1966. The New Frontier and Great Society programs found their basis in the work and philosophies of John F. Kennedy, Metcalf, Huber H. Humphrey, and Lyndon B. Johnson.


Senator Lee Metcalf had a very loyal office staff, several of whom  had served with him in the U.S. House and transitioned to his Senate office with him. Metcalf’s staff in 1961 included the following: Brit Englund, long-time administrative assistant; Vic Reinemer, executive secretary; Helene F. Haliday; Susie Hodge; Donaldeen White; Beverly L. Knowles, receptionist-secretary; Anne Hoss Bergstrom; Peggy McLaughlin, Metcalf’s personal secretary; George Ostrom, Metcalf’s Wilderness Act legislative aide (1961-1963); and Myrna Salvas.


Senator Lee Metcalf went on to serve on many important Senate committees and hold important roles within the U.S. Senate. He served as the U.S. Senate Permanent Acting President Pro Tempore of the Senate, the presiding officer of the Senate in absence of the Vice-President of the U.S., from June 1963 to January 1978. The Senate committees he was a part of from 1961 to January 1978 (all at different times and for different lengths of service) include the following: Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs; Subcommittees: Minerals, Materials and Fuels-Chairman; Territories and Insular Affairs; Water and Power Resources; Indian Affairs Subcommittee chairman (began 1965), and Metcalf helped to end the U.S. Senate’s bent towards the Indian termination policy; Committee on Public Works; Committee on Post Office and Civil Service; Committee on Finance (one term); Co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Congressional Operations from 1973-1977;  Chairman of the Subcommittee on Budgeting, Management and Expenditures; Surplus Property Subcommittee; Impoundment of Funds Subcommittee; Migratory Bird Conservation Committee (started in 1961); Committee on Energy and Natural Resources; Committee on Governmental Affairs; Energy Conservation and Regulation Subcommittee; Parks and Recreation Subcommittee; Energy Subcommittee; Nuclear Proliferation Subcommittee; Federal Services Subcommittee; Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee; and the Chairman of the Public Lands and Resources Subcommittee.


Metcalf was involved with the Department of the Interior; the National Park Service; the National Historic Register; the National Historic Landmarks Program; Bureau of Reclamation; and the Army Corps of Engineers. In his capacity as Acting President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate, Senator Lee Metcalf signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 on April 10, 1965. Senator Metcalf wrote, co-sponsored, or was a major proponent of the following pieces of federal legislation: Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965; Medicare (1966), which he first introduced in 1956; Wilderness Act of 1964; Metal and Non-metallic Mine Safety Act of 1966, the first national non-coal mine safety legislation; Save Our Streams (SOS) Bill, 1962-1966 (passed later as different law); co-sponsored with Hubert H. Humphrey the Youth Conservation Corps, the forerunner of the Jobs Corps; Metcalf was the first person to propose legislation to study the effects of chemical sprays on fish and wildlife (passed as Pesticide Research Act of 1958); introduced legislation to release surplus government property to schools and hospitals; the National Power Grid Bill, which he helped to write (introduced to Congress on July 21, 1971)—Metcalf only Senator to sponsor the bill for the first national power grid system; S. 1991 National Electrical Energy Reliability and Conservation Act; Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (War on Poverty program); G.I. Cold War Bill of 1966; Clean Air Act of 1963; Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1964; Water Resources Recreation Act; Water Quality Act of 1965; Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968; Clean Water Act of 1972; Missouri River Breaks study bill; Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977; Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966 (Truth in Packaging Act); Voting Rights Act of 1970; Deep Seabed Mineral Resources Act (1980)—Metcalf introduced 1977; Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968—Metcalf wrote and introduced this act in 1966, and it was enacted on April 11, 1968.


Senator Metcalf had a very special personal and working relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, the other Montana U.S. Senator. Because of his position of national leadership, Mansfield was too busy to deal all the time with Montana issues and constituents; Mansfield gave the state-related issues to Metcalf to work on many times. Friends and former office staff members of both Mansfield and Metcalf often say that “Mansfield was Montana’s national senator and Metcalf was Montana’s state senator.” When Metcalf needed any legislation sponsored or money appropriated for Montana-related issues, Metcalf sought out Mansfield’s help to aid in those situations. Lee Metcalf did the great majority of the state outreach, representation of state issues, and communication with constituents for the Montana Senate delegation. Mansfield once said of Metcalf in March 1960, “As l have said many times, both in Montana and Washington, he is the best Congressman ever to come out of Montana.” Mansfield also remarked that “He [Metcalf] is one of the best legal minds in the Senate, if not the best,” and that “There is no man I trust more than Lee Metcalf.”


Lee Metcalf had a number of unique personal habits which speak to and help explain the materials in his photograph collection and his congressional papers. Lee had a quick temper which could get him in trouble every so often, and his temper was always mentioned by newspaper journalists. He had a parking space in the Capitol Hill garage; but, despite bad knees, he walked home every day through a rough Washington, D.C., neighborhood because he liked talking with people along the way. He did not buy expensive items or go to expensive restaurants, though he would spend money for gifts or other things for his wife, Donna. Metcalf did not hunt or fish, like guns, camp often, or go boating regularly. He wore the same felt fedora for every public office election filing from 1946 to 1972.


Metcalf also had a number of remarkable professional habits, which many of his former staff and interns have shared with the Montana Historical Society. Metcalf surveyed all non-form constituent letters, and personally wrote replies to more than 75% of them (if you read his constituent correspondence, and there is a personal pronoun of “I” or “myself” in the letter, it was written by Metcalf—barring any notation from his staff). Metcalf did not have photographs taken in his office with people he did not like, which means the photographs in this collection are a selection of scenes in his political career which he severely controlled. While reading constituent letters, Metcalf would cross out sentences and paragraphs with wrong information, poor grammar, or statements and views he did not agree with. He would write “WRONG”, “STUPID”, or curse words next to crossed-out sections—sometimes sending the letters with these markings back to the original letter’s author. He critiqued spelling and grammar of letters from people he did not like, seemingly as a means of letting off steam while reading the letters. From 1966 to 1972, Metcalf used a stamp with a curse word on it (given to him by AFL-CIO Montana leader and friend James Murray), which Metcalf used to mark letters. Metcalf primarily trusted three people in his office to handle important tasks and situations: Vic Reinemer his executive secretary; Brit Englund, his administrative assistant; and Peggy McLaughlin, his personal secretary. Lee and his wife Donna stayed up late at home in bed reading constituent letters, Congressional Record statements, news reports, his television show scripts, and other materials, as a means of keeping up with his work load and being accountable to his Montana constituents. Lee would sleep for an hour while his wife Donna read over materials, then Donna would sleep for an hour while Lee went over other materials. Lee Metcalf made a point to visit with political friends on each campaign stop in Montana or during speech tours; he always left time to talk with constituents during his public appearances more so than he did for politicians.


Donna Metcalf was an independent woman who believed women should be outspoken, work hard, fight for their rights, and take advantage of the opportunities afforded women. She urged women to forget their timidness and to take an active part in getting voters registered, be involved in political party work, and contacting voters. She was a member of the American Association of University Women; a member of board of directors of the Women's National Democratic Club; and the Vice-President of the Congressional Wives Club. Donna also was an artist, enjoying painting and photography. She supported historic preservation and historic property restoration. Throughout his entire career, Donna served as Lee Metcalf’s speech critic and advisor, using her journalism degree to work with Lee on his public presentation skills. Donna worked closely with Lady Bird Johnson on the City Beautification program from 1964 to 1968 (see Donna’s personal photographs for samples of her work), because she believed in improving the quality of life in inner cities—especially for the underprivileged and minorities.


Senator Metcalf announced his 1966 Senate re-election campaign in 1965. Montana Gov. Tim Babcock became Metcalf’s most likely Republican opponent by 1964, having made statements in the newspapers indicating he was planning to run. On September 6, 1966, Babcock and Metcalf, who had won their party primaries, signed the code of the non-partisan Fair Campaign Practices Committee in the governor’s office. On September 20, 1966, Babcock returned the pledge to Metcalf over comments Metcalf made about Babcock’s views of Indian termination. This sparked one of the most hotly contested federal political races in Montana’s history. Metcalf’s campaign came up with a pamphlet entitled “Bab-talk”, written by his intern Don Robinson (1965-1966). Metcalf gave a large box of newspaper clippings on everything Babcock did or said in 1966, and asked Robinson come up with a campaign piece Metcalf could use to counter Babcock. Robinson wrote a booklet on Babcock’s ever-changing statements. Metcalf defeated Babcock 138,166 to 121,697 votes.


In 1972, Senator Metcalf’s was undecided about running for the 1972 Senate re-election campaign. His health was worsening, and he said he wanted to return home to Montana. Metcalf conducted a poll of Montanans about potential results of the 1972 U.S. Senate elections in Montana. He found if he did not run, the Democrats would lose the Senate seat. The Montana Democratic Party Convention was held November 12-13, 1971, at the Rainbow Hotel in Great Falls, Montana. On November 12, 1971, Metcalf announced his candidacy during a speech, believing he would not have strong challengers (which is why he changed his mind). Metcalf raced against Henry “Hank” Hibbard in the 1972 election, and Metcalf won 163,609 to 151,316 votes.


In an article in the Butte Montana Standard on November 4, 1972, it was stated that “Metcalf has spent the bulk of his Washington career in Mansfield’s public shadow. He has penned some important legislation, including the first bill providing for federal aid to education, and has fought government secrecy and corporation and utility profits he considers excessive. Metcalf was becoming a consumer’s champion when Ralph Nader was in plastic pants and a conservationist when most Americans thought the Sierra Club was a fancy bar.”


It is most interesting how Senator Lee Metcalf’s political decisions affected American and Montanan politics and society from 1956 to 1972. In 1956, Metcalf wrote a letter to a friend stating he was going to run for President; the next day, he wrote another letter saying he decided against running for President. From December 1959-March 1960, Metcalf had considered running for the U.S. Senate seat of James E. Murray. Murray began writing nasty letters about Metcalf and making angry statements to newspapers about Metcalf breaking apart the Montana congressional delegation. Metcalf researched his decision and found if he did not run for the seat, the Democrats would lose it. Metcalf’s decision to run for the Senate broke up the alliance of Mansfield, Murray, and Metcalf known as the “3Ms,” and the Montana Democratic congressional delegation unity was permanently severed. Mansfield remained on Metcalf’s side throughout the controversy. From 1956 to 1960, U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn allegedly had ben mentoring Metcalf to take over his role as U.S. House of Representatives Speaker after 1960. Metcalf was a colossus in the U.S. House, with newspapers and politicians all thinking he would be next the next House Speaker for sure. As House Speaker, Metcalf would have held a level of prestige that became impossible in the U.S. Senate with Mike Mansfield as the potential new Senate Majority Leader. Metcalf chose to run for U.S. Senate to give Democrats both Montana seats and increase their chances for passing social welfare legislation in the 1960s. Metcalf’s level of national prestige was never as high again after 1960 as it had been during his tenure in the U.S. House.


In 1967, Senator George McGovern recommended his friends Senators Lee Metcalf and Eugene McCarthy as the 1968 Democratic Presidential candidate to the press. The press asked Metcalf, who got mad at the thought and chased the press out of his office. The press went to McCarthy, who said he would run for the Presidency. When Senator Robert F. Kennedy heard McCarthy would run, Kennedy knew he could beat McCarthy (though he probably would have struggled against Metcalf in a campaign) after the New Hampshire primaries. Robert Kennedy entered the Democratic Presidential race, and was assassinated on June 6, 1968. Eventually, the small group of long-time Democratic political allies and friends Hubert H. Humphrey, McCarthy, and McGovern all ran for the Presidency, but they lost to Nixon. The 1968 Presidential race injured the strong friendships and alliances built since 1955, which had resulted in much of the 1950s and 1960s social welfare and personal rights legislation. In 1968, Lee Metcalf was being considered by President Johnson as a justice for the U.S. Supreme Court; Metcalf, a former state supreme court justice, turned down the offer—which came to effect Supreme Court decisions under President Nixon in the 1970s.


Senator Lee Metcalf’s political career was affected by his failing health from 1966 to January 1978. He had had knee injuries since the 1930s. In 1966—during his Senate re-election campaign—he was frequently visiting Walter Reed Medical for undisclosed issues (some believe this was start of his heart issues). From 1969 to 1973, his staff began noticing that Metcalf is becoming weaker from unknown medicines believed to be taken for issues with his heart. His doctors could not operate on his long-injured knees, because the doctors were worried that they would cause him heart problems or a stroke. On February 11, 1970, Metcalf was involved in a car crash which almost took his life. At 11:30 P.M. on Wednesday night, eleven miles southeast of Butte on the Homestake Pass on Interstate 90, a car driven by his driver hit a patch of black ice, and slammed Metcalf’s side of the car into a mountain. His arm was broken in five places, and he had surgery. It took 3½ months for Metcalf to heal. From 1972 to 1974, Metcalf was visibly aging quickly. He was beginning to not want photographs of himself taken after the 1972 Senate elections, and there are few photographs of him outside of his Senate office from 1973 to 1977. By 1975, Metcalf was using a cane regularly to get around due to his knees.


Senator Metcalf had announced his plans two years before the 1978 Senate elections that he would not run for re-election; 1978 would be his last year in office. In his last couple of years in Congress, Metcalf was fighting for the wilderness designation of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area and the Great Bear Wilderness Area; he was also fighting to enact strip-mining legislation. Metcalf complained of a stomach ache while visiting with Donna Metcalf’s parents in Wallace, Idaho, on Wednesday, January 11, 1978. Jerry Metcalf drove his father home to the Metcalfs’ converted apartment in their house at 1220 Eighth Avenue in Helena. Jerry came into the Metcalfs’ apartment on Thursday morning, January 12, 1978, and found that Senator Metcalf had passed away in his sleep from a heart condition. Lee Metcalf was cremated, and his ashes spread over the Bitterroot National Forest. President Carter said Metcalf’s death “stills a voice that had long spoken up for preserving the great wilderness areas of this country. He was a friend of working people and family farmers and an early sponsor of legislation for clean water, federal aid to education and reclamation of strip mined land. His loss will be deeply felt.” Even in death, Senator Metcalf influenced the outcome of major national policies. Metcalf passed away during a key vote on President Carter’s national energy bill, which was designed to ease the national energy crisis of the late 1970s. Before the U.S. Senate could honor Metcalf, his friend and political ally Hubert H. Humphrey died of cancer on January 13, 1978. Humphrey’s death overshadowed Metcalf’s loss, and many people went on to forget Metcalf’s political legacy.


Metcalf was once described by consumer activist Ralph Nader, with whom Metcalf was very close professionally, as being the most liberal U.S. Senator in Congress, as well as being the Congress' greatest consumer advocate. Metcalf's legacy in public education, mine safety, conservation and wilderness issues, care for the elderly, care and support of military veterans, public works programs, and social welfare issues may have been forgotten by most people. However, it is undeniable that Metcalf left his mark on some of the most important legislation, federal programs, and congressional issues of the mid-20th century.


Return to Senator Lee Metcalf (1911-1978)


 Montana Historical Society Research Center

 225 North Roberts, P.O. Box 201201, Helena, MT 59620-1201, 406-444-2681, 406-444-2696 (fax).



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