Joan Barron: Snippets From A Reporter's Notebook

Columnist Joan Barron writes, "The Democrats were a wild bunch during the session in 1958. They carted the shaggy stuffed buffalo from the capitol rotunda to the lawn outside and began riding it. Some were bucked off."

Joan Barron

June 17, 20244 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

CHEYENNE — Bob Leewright of the Associated Press was the only reporter or newsman who attended the Democratic state convention in Cody, Wyoming in 1958.

It was at that meeting that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, then a member of the U.S. Senate, was a guest speaker.

Kennedy was setting the stage for his successful 1960 campaign for president.against Republican Richard Nixon.

According to Leewright’s account, former Congressman Teno Roncalio invited him up to Kennedy’s room for a drink and a private chat.

Roncalio also suggested he might even get to help Kennedy put on his famous back brace.

The reporter, dammit, never tells us what happened at that private meeting with the next U.S. president.

Four years later, In 1962, President Kennedy was in Cheyenne campaigning for Democrats when he made a major blooper.

He was explaining to Wyoming voters the importance of their votes.

In New York it takes several million votes to elect a U.S. senator. “But in Wyoming a few thousand odd people can elect one,” Kennedy said.

Leewright made these recollections in an interview when he retired from the Associated Press. I found the yellowed clipping while cleaning out old files.

He had covered legislatures and other news in Wyoming for 16 years and before that 19 years in Boise, Idaho.

He gave the Kennedy stories as an example of the advantages of covering politics in a sparsely populated state where there are relatively few newspeople and you get to know candidates on a personal level.

“We’re out in the sticks here,” he said, adding that he met every president since Harry Truman along with a number of people who should have been president .

In narrating his Wyoming experience he singled out the legislative session of 1957 or 1959 which ended with a fist fight on the senate floor.

The combatants were Senators R. J. (Jimmie) Keelan of Cheyenne and Harvey Johnson of Sheridan.

Leewright said the fight was over a bill that drew zero attention during the session.

Later he found out the bill changed the licensing requirements for insurance agents. That was scarcely a bombshell.

I suspect the fight was alcohol-fueled and personal.

Legislators, particularly in the Senate, had a last night tradition of drinking on the fire escape outside the senate chambers. That way they were not drinking alcohol in the capitol building, which was not allowed.

The Democrats were a wild bunch, according to Leewright, during a session in 1958 they controlled the Wyoming House in one of the few times in state history. Virtually the entire Democratic delegation had a few too many drinks — again on the last night of the session.

The Dems carted the shaggy stuffed buffalo from the capitol rotunda to the lawn outside and began riding it.

Some were bucked off, Leewright said.

In his final recall of the Wyoming Legislature, Leewright credited Sen. Richard Jones, a Cody Republican, of making the most effective short speech.

The debate was over a bill to raise the speed limit on Wyoming highways to 70 mph. All support for the bill collapsed when Jones, owner of a trucking company, said “Seventy is too fast for trucks to go on the highway.”

The one last night combat I almost witnessed (entered chamber to find one legislator on the floor of the Senate) was over the old method of financing K-12 public schools — the classroom unit value. Trust me; the system was horribly complicated.

The state supreme court dumped the old system and now we have a grant system.

But before the court decision some lawmakers would try to increase the classroom unit value so their schools would get more state support.

It was an issue that came up more than once with the budget on the final night.

When that effort failed, the tempers rose.

But it never stopped them from talking to each other eventually.

Regardless of the fist fights and high jinks, I think today’s problems with this fractured Legislature are much more serious than senators drinking on the fire escape on the last night of the session.


Contact Joan Barron at 307 632-2534 or

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Joan Barron

Political Columnist