Wyoming Still Fights Stigma Of Suicide 70 Years After US Sen. Lester Hunt’s Death

Lander state senator Cale Case used the 70th anniversary of the death of former U.S. Sen. Lester Hunt, who killed himself in 1954 amid pressure from McCarthyism, to highlight how Wyoming is still fighting the stigma of suicide.

Leo Wolfson

June 19, 20247 min read

State Sen. Cale Case with a portrait of former U.S. Sen. Lester Hunt in the rotunda of the Wyoming Capitol on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, the 70th anniversary of Hunt's death by suicide.
State Sen. Cale Case with a portrait of former U.S. Sen. Lester Hunt in the rotunda of the Wyoming Capitol on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, the 70th anniversary of Hunt's death by suicide. (Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily)

CHEYENNE — State Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, wanted to make a point Wednesday morning at the Capitol rotunda that he believes former Wyoming U.S. Senator Lester Hunt’s death by suicide decades ago, and many suicides today, may have been preventable.

“We’re here today to focus on what we can do about suicide and what we can do to remember that how we treat each other both publicly and privately is so important,” Case said. “Politics doesn’t have to be a brutal contact support.”

Wednesday was the 70th anniversary of Hunt’s death, something Case doesn’t believe has been properly publicized because of the stigma around suicide. Even Case’s father, who was friends with Hunt, would rarely talk about how he died. Hunt’s brother also died by suicide.

“There’s so many things that could have derailed this,” Case said. “Sometimes you just need a friendly face and a good ear.”

Hunt’s portrait is permanently displayed in the basement of the Capitol near the governor’s offices. During Wednesday’s event, the painting was brought up to the rotunda on the main floor of the building, which Case said was an act symbolically returning Hunt’s spirit to the Capitol.

Politically Drawn

Hunt, also a former Wyoming governor and secretary of state, died in 1954 shortly after coming under scrutiny by former U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his campaign to eradicate supposed Communists from respected standing in American life.

Although Case said he doesn’t believe any of his fellow legislators are receiving any political attacks or criticism on the level of what Hunt did or that could drive them to the point of suicide, he does believe there are streaks of McCarthyism entering Wyoming politics.

Some Wyoming lawmakers have received death threats and other violent messages in recent years, he said.

“The (current) political circumstances are a mirror of the early 1950s, it really is,” Case said. “We have people making all sorts of statements and thrusting out and making accusations and calling people names, whether it’s RINOS or uniparties. It’s horrible and we have to stop that.”

Sen. John Kolb, R-Rock Springs, said although he sees some similarities, he doesn’t believe Case's comparison is wholly accurate.

“The level of vitriol is a whole different situation,” Kolb said about the differences between what Hunt experienced 70 years ago and today.

Kolb also pointed out that some of the accusations made against Hunt were true, in contrast to the outright lies he often sees propagated against him and on other topics.

Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, the longest serving member of the Legislature, said American politics has always gone through swings of civility and incivility since the country’s founding. He agrees with Case that we are now in a time of incivility and that personal attacks have become all too common in Wyoming politics.

“We need to try and maintain a degree of civility and try to avoid unnecessary personal disputes,” he said.

Case has often been targeted by other Republicans and the Wyoming Republican Party, which has censured him multiple times for his votes on bills. Unlike McCarthyism, a censure is a purely symbolic condemnation without any real tangible repercussion attached.

State Sen. Cale Case with a portrait of former U.S. Sen. Lester Hunt in the rotunda of the Wyoming Capitol on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, the 70th anniversary of Hunt's death by suicide.
State Sen. Cale Case with a portrait of former U.S. Sen. Lester Hunt in the rotunda of the Wyoming Capitol on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, the 70th anniversary of Hunt's death by suicide. (Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily)

Suicide Prevention

Preventing suicide was the main theme of Wednesday’s ceremony. Case and Wyoming Department of Health Director Stefan Johansson made a point to emphasize that suicide can happen to anyone, impacting Wyoming’s brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and even a U.S. senator.

Wyoming’s has historically had one of the worst rates of suicide by per capita in the country, although those numbers have been slowly improving in recent years.

The most common approach to supporting suicide prevention has been to provide more money to public health services.

Cheyenne resident Jade Gray issued a plea for a different approach Wednesday.

“Whenever you hear organizations that deal with these types of issues, they can never give you a lot of hope,” Gray told Cowboy State Daily. “Their success rates aren’t very high. They don’t really have an answer and are just hoping and wishing for the best.”

Gray said he attempted suicide in 2019. He turned to religion after and said his life changed.

“I surrendered, I repented and I gave my life to Jesus Christ and he healed my mind supernaturally,” Gray said. “He healed my body and he healed my spirit.”

Johansson issued support for a more traditional approach to suicide prevention Wednesday, citing the success of the state’s two 988 suicide prevention call centers. During the 2024 legislative session, $20 million was set aside for a trust fund to support the call centers into the future.

“Over the past several years, I’ve seen remarkable improvement in the area of behavioral health and suicide prevention and crisis support,” Johannson said. “We’re picking food off of that tree, we’re seeing material results.”

Who Was Hunt?

Hunt fell into controversy as a senator when his son was arrested in Washington, D.C., on charges of soliciting sex from an undercover male police officer. He also frequently sparred with McCarthy, calling him drunk and a liar on the floor of the Senate.

Several senators, including McCarthy, threatened Hunt with the prosecution of his son and wide publication of the event unless he abandoned plans to run for re-election and resigned immediately, which Hunt initially refused to do. After McCarthy renewed his threat to publicize his son’s arrest, Hunt announced he would resign.

Still, McCarthy wouldn’t relent, and publicly announced he would investigate Hunt for what McCarthy saw as his effort to interfere in the investigation into his son.

One day later, Hunt shot himself in his office at the U.S. Capitol. Case believes Hunt took his own life with the intention of being a protective father, but instead the act was misguided.

“Suicide is not necessary, it is not the right answer,” Case said. “The release of bondage by Senator Hunt placed all of us into a type of bondage and it placed his family in bondage.”

University of Wyoming historian and professor T.A. Larson found documents left by Hunt shortly before his death proving he planned to take his life because of his entanglements with McCarthy and The Red Scare, a nickname for McCarthy’s efforts to root out Communists.

A number of other people who sparred with McCarthy ended up dying by suicide. Case believes Hunt’s death prompted the downfall of McCarthy’s support in Congress. Later that year, he was censured by his colleagues.

But Hunt was also not perfect.

While serving in the Wyoming Legislature he sponsored a eugenics bill that would have permitted the sterilization of inmates. He also said he didn’t want any of the Japanese internees stationed at Heart Mountain in Cody to remain in Wyoming after World War II.

Case said he feels a duty to honor Hunt because of his father being business partners with the man for 18 years and being a pallbearer at his funeral. In 2023, Case unsuccessfully brought a bill that would have given Hunt official recognition from the Wyoming Legislature for a life of public service.

“My father wouldn’t want to let this anniversary go,” Case said. “He’d be pleased at today.”

A healing service was also held for Hunt on Wednesday afternoon at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Cheyenne.

State Auditor Kristi Racines was at the portrait ceremony and Gov. Mark Gordon was at the church ceremony, along with every living former Wyoming governor. Gordon signed a proclamation declaring June 19, 2024, U.S. Sen. Lester Hunt 70th Remembrance Day.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter