Forty-five years ago this Monday, July 19, 1965, Adlai E. Stevenson II was laid to rest at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery on Bloomington’s south side.
“Not since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” noted United Press International, “has the death of an American statesman evoked such expressions of shock and outpouring of tribute from free men around the world.”
Illinois governor, twice Democratic Party presidential candidate (1952 and 1956, losing both times to Dwight Eisenhower), and ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson spent his boyhood years in Bloomington before leaving in the mid-1920s to attend an East Coast boarding school and then Princeton University
On July 14, 1965, he died of a massive heart attack while staying in London for a few days after wrapping up a U.N. meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. He was 65 years old.
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson dispatched Air Force One to England to retrieve the body of his U.N. ambassador. The official party escorting the casket back across the Atlantic included Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey; Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley; and Stevenson’s three sons, Adlai III, 34 years old; Borden, 32; and John Fell, 29.
The day before Stevenson’s death, Johnson announced “new and serious decisions” facing the U.S. with regards to the war in Vietnam, including the expected buildup of troop levels to 100,000 or more by summer’s end.
On Monday, July 12, Eric Sevareid had a lengthy, heartfelt conversation with Stevenson at the U.S. embassy in London. After Stevenson’s death, the CBS newsman offered readers of Look magazine a candid profile of the exhausted statesman two days before his sudden death. Stevenson acknowledged frustration with LBJ over Vietnam and other foreign adventures, admitting to Sevareid that he longed to resign his ambassadorship and “sit in the shade with a glass of wine in my hand and watch the people dance.”
After a Friday, July 16, memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Stevenson’s body was flown to Springfield, again on Air Force One. His closed casket lay in state in the Capitol Building atop the catafalque that carried Abraham Lincoln’s body back to Springfield. The Illinois Statehouse was kept open late Friday through Sunday morning, where an estimated 42,000-plus visitors passed the flag-draped casket.
Stevenson’s body was then placed in a hearse and escorted by motorcade to Bloomington. The casket was brought to the Unitarian Church at 1613 E. Emerson St., and some 15,000 area residents filed past said goodbye.
Stevenson’s family, including his sister Elizabeth “Buffie” Ives, had initially planned a small, private service at the church, but when LBJ decided to pay his final respects in person, a mad scramble ensued to make room for the president and other dignitaries.
During the Monday, July 19 church service, Johnson and Lady Bird sat in a front row pew (see accompanying image). Also in attendance were the Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck; Vice President Humphrey; Earl Warren, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; and Alverta Duff, the African-American housekeeper for the Stevensons when Adlai was a boy.
The final stop was Evergreen Cemetery and a brief graveside ceremony. According to Illinois State Police, some 50,000 spectators, at times 10-to-12 deep, lined city streets to catch a glimpse of Stevenson’s hearse and Johnson’s limousine. The Pantagraph reported that “an almost solid mass of humanity” watched the procession as it made its way south down Main Street and east onto Miller Street and through the cemetery gates.
The 13-minute graveside service ended with the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, said to be Stevenson’s favorite. The prayer reads, in part, “Oh, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek / To be consoled as to console; / To be understood, as to understand.”
That same day, 6,000 mostly area residents gathered at Horton Field House on the Illinois State University campus to pay tribute to Stevenson’s life and career. “He was a great believer in national humility, modesty, self-examination and self-criticism,” said Richard G. Browne, head of the state’s higher education board and a good friend of the governor.
In the days after the burial, crowds still flocked to the cemetery. “I thought it would be over after the funeral, but they keep coming,” remarked Hugh E. Coffman, a special guard assigned to watch over the family plot. There were also the expected souvenir seekers. “One woman,” Coffman added, “asked me if she could have some of the black dirt from the grave for her flower box, claiming that it would make her plants grow better.”