Charles Curtis (1860-1936) is a superstar in the history of Topeka and the state of Kansas, having served the public in Congress as a representative and senator, then as vice president under Herbert Hoover. He had the honor of opening the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1932 on behalf of the president (Hoover, tied up with the country’s financial problems, a re-election campaign and the Bonus Army disaster, did not attend and sent Curtis on his behalf). The Olympic Games were surely a bright spot for the vice president and the country, which was nearing the lowest ebb of the Great Depression. Sports can carry people through tough times.
Arriving at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum from the Hotel Biltmore on July 30, Curtis met officials from the International Olympic Committee and the Los Angeles organizing committee. According to news accounts, a choir of 1,000 sang the Star Spangled Banner, trumpets sounded and 100,000 spectators cheered as the officials and athletes took their places and began the Parade of Nations.
Reporter Allison Danzig noted during the parade of 2,000 athletes from 39 countries the Canadian, Finnish and Italian athletes gave the “Fascisti salute” to the vice president as they passed his reviewing stand. It may seem odd to us today, but the salute was based in history on ancient Roman practice. It had not yet been entirely hijacked by Blackshirts, Nazis and what we today think of as fascism. She did note the German athletes “doffed” their yachting caps and cheered as they passed Curtis’ box. If you want “real” fascist salutes, fast forward to the 1936 Games in Berlin.
Curtis opened the games with the proclamation: “In the name of the President of the United States I proclaim open the Olympic Games of Los Angeles Celebrating the Tenth Olympiad of the modern era.” Again, trumpets blared and cannon fire preceded the singing of the Olympic hymn, lighting of the torch, raising the Olympic flag and freeing thousands of birds.
It was a busy trip for the vice president.
He couldn’t escape politics or the Bonus Army controversy. On his way to Los Angeles, Curtis’ train stopped in Las Vegas (pop. 9,000) so he could make remarks on the benefits of Hoover Dam’s construction nearby. A few Bonus Army sympathisers heckled him. The vice president shot back, “You cowards, I’m not afraid of any of you!” Someone in the crowd cheered for Hoover’s opponent in the presidential race, Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “If you wait for him to be elected, you’ll be an old man,” Curtis replied.
In Los Angeles, the vice president presented fellow Kansan Amelia Earhart with a Distinguished Flying Cross for being the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic solo. It was, she remarked, “an overwhelming honor.” Curtis also helped dedicate a state office building in Civic Square.
Visit the library to find out more about Charles Curtis: his ties to Kansas and Topeka, family, and his Native American heritage. See his historic home, his burial place at the Topeka Cemetery or the state office building named after this legendary Kansan.