Before the political epic that was Hubert Horatio Humphrey, there was a love story—and Muriel Humphrey’s courage and grace during Washington’s last farewell to him were perhaps its most eloquent testament.
He was a soda jerk in his father’s drugstore in Huron, S. Dak. when Muriel Buck, the wholesale grocer’s daughter, came in for a Coke in 1934. She remembers meeting “a skinny boy,” who “kidded and joked so much I thought he was sort of childish.” But a hundred grange and pavilion dances later, they were married. It was 1936, and both their families were Depression-poor, so she gave him her savings ($675) to go to college, and she took a job as a clerk. Every morning she rose at 5 a.m. to make sandwiches he could sell to fellow students for 10 cents each. “You’ll help me, I know,” he wrote her during a first heady trip to Washington. “You be my inspirational force, Muriel…Oh, Gosh! I hope my dreams come true.”
When they did, she shared his joy despite deep misgivings (“I never believed it could be so awful,” the freshman senator’s wife once admitted). She longed for time alone with him in Minnesota, but campaigned tirelessly to keep him in Washington—even to win him the Presidency. When he didn’t get it, she shared his sense of loss, remembering particularly a state reception at the new Nixon White House. “The Marine Band was playing ruffles and flourishes and everything looked so exciting and beautiful. I turned to Hubert and said, ‘Damn,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Damn.’ ” Four children was not the only reason they called each other “Mother” and “Father.” “It might sound maudlin,” he said in 1968, “but I love that girl more today than I did 10 years ago…I enjoy her.”
What direction Muriel’s new life will take is unclear. Perhaps, as speculated, she will return from a vacation with her family in the Virgin Islands to accept Hubert’s Senate seat until a special election can be held next fall. No matter. In whatever she does, she will benefit from the lifetime lesson they taught each other in the art of perseverance. As Humphrey told a long-faced visitor after his surgery for cancer in 1976: “Oh, my friend, it’s not what they take away from you that counts—it’s what you do with what you have left.”