FROM PASTOR TO PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE
Quick. How many Bucknellians have been on the national ballot for president six times? Probably just Norman Thomas, Class of
1905 — as the Socialist candidate, succeeding that
party’s standard bearer, Eugene V. Debs, after his
death in 1926.
Thomas spent his early years in Marion, Ohio, but
his late teens in Lewisburg, where his father, Welling
Thomas, served until 1913 as pastor of the First
Presbyterian Church on Market Street. Lewisburg
was the site of some important firsts for Norman —
an annual summer job at the Lewisburg Chair and
Furniture factory and a college education, at Bucknell
from 1901–02. After one year, a wealthy relative
funded his transfer to Princeton, where he graduated
as valedictorian in 1905. Still, Thomas returned
often during summer months to give his father a
break from preaching. And he came several times
to Lewisburg and Bucknell between 1928 and 1964
to give talks and meet with students.
Before turning to politics, Thomas was a settlement
worker in the New York City slums, Presbyterian pastor, and writer and editor for magazines such as The Nation.
He also co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union.
Thomas first shared the presidential ballot with mainline candidates Herbert Hoover and Al Smith in 1928. In
1932, he garnered his greatest number of votes, nearly 900,000, against Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
According to Professor Ben Willeford, emeritus chemistry, “Roosevelt won the election but adopted Thomas’ platform:
unemployment compensation, Social Security, public works for the unemployed and abolition of child labor.”
Willeford, 94, cast his own first vote for Thomas. “I saw him at a campaign event in 1944; he was a dynamic speaker.”
Thomas’ last run for the presidency was in 1948. In a Bucknell class note that Thomas submitted in 1960, he
wrote, “I became the most defeated candidate in American political history.” He went on to tell his classmates
that he had fond memories of them and that he had been “singularly fortunate in these tumultuous
years through which we have lived and are still living.”
Thomas continued to speak and write books until the very end. At one of his last speeches,
nearly blind, arthritic and with a serious heart condition, he spoke to 109 students from 30
countries, condemning the Lyndon Johnson administration for its conduct of the Vietnam War.
He concluded by indicating the United States was living by its own modification of the Ten
Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill — retail; thou shalt kill wholesale at my command.”
His death in December 1968 made front-page news across the country.
Hearing the news, President Johnson proclaimed, “America loses one of its most
eloquent speakers, finest writers and most creative thinkers. He was a humane and
courageous man who lived to see many of the causes he championed become the
law of the land.” — Sherri Kimmel
For more on Norman Thomas, Class of 1905, download the Bucknell Magazine app or
go to bucknell.edu/Norman Thomas.
Norman Thomas presidential
campaign buttons from 1928
(top) and 1944 (bottom).
Norman Thomas, Class of 1905