GEORGE A. DONDERO: MAN WHO LIVED IN HIS TIMES
George Anthony Dondero was born on Dec. 16, 1883, in Greenfield township, west of Highland Park and near Eight-Mile, in Wayne county, the youngest of three sons of Louis (Luigi) and Caroline Turhern Dondero.
His father came to the United States at the age of 15 from Northern Italy, and his mother came to the United States from Germany at the age of 17. They were married on Oct. 18, 1863, in Hartford, Conn., where Louis Dondero worked packing cartridges in the Colt gun factory for the Union army. They moved to Wayne county in 1869.
When George was not quite two years old, the Dondero family moved to a farm in Royal Oak Township, at West Nine-Mile and Scotia, a road which was first called Dondero road because it was opened by Louis Dondero.
George worked on the farm during his early school years and attended the one-room Clinton school. At 15 he moved to Royal Oak to attend Royal Oak schools. He lived with his older brother, Gustavas, who owned and operated a hotel at Fourth and Center. George worked at the hotel for his room and board.
"Later as I grew older, I did help out in the bar-room on Saturday nights and mornings and did what I could to make mysell useful."
"It has always been somewhat of a personal satisfaction to me to have been able to come in contact with intoxicating liquor without using it myself", Mr. Dondero later wrote.
He attended Union school, Royal Oak, and was the first boy to graduate. His June 13, 1903, graduating class consisted of himself and three girls. All lived to hold a 50th reunion. While attending Union, he earned $1 a week at Ford's butcher shop.
He saved enough money to buy his law books while teaching school at Oxford for a year, selling insurance in Saginaw, operating a butcher shop, which he bought in Royal Oak, and teaching three years in Big Beaver, now Troy.
In 1905 Dondero began his lengthy political career with election as village clerk of Royal Oak for one year. He started night school in the spring of 1907, running a feed store and dairy business during the day, with his books open for study between customers.
In 1907 he was elected treasurer of Royal Oak township. In 1909 he was appointed village assessor in Royal Oak.
The year 1910 was a big one. He received his L.L.B. degree from the Detroit College of Law, was admitted to the bar, was named village attorney for Royal Oak, and was elected to the board of Royal Oak School District No. 6.
On June 28, 1913, he married Adele Roegner. They had three children; a daughter, Mrs. Glen D. (Marion) Wilson, the late Stanton Grant Dondero, an Oakland county circuit judge, and Robert Lincoln Dondero, named for the son of Abraham Lincoln.
In 1915 Dondero was elected president of the Royal Oak school board. He served for the next 13 years, until 1928. While village attorney, Dondero also served as assistant prosecuting attorney in Oakland County, from 1918 to 1919.
Dondero was an unsuccessful candidate for the state legislature in 1920.
In April, 1921, when voters in the villages of Royal Oak, Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge and part of Royal Oak township turned down a proposal to incorporate as one city, Village President George B. Hartrick of Royal Oak instructed City Attorney Dondero to prepare city incorporation petitions for the village.
First Mayor -
Voters in Royal Oak unanimously had backed the one-city plan. "The attorney acted with speed and filed the petitions with 217 signatures on April 11th," a newspaper clipping reports. The issue was put to a vote and won; the villagers selected a nine-man commission to draft a city charter, with Dondero as chairman.
Dondero scored a major political victory in the Nov. 8, 1921, election which approved the charter, 922 to 133. Dondero and Hartrick, later to become an Oakland County circuit judge, were opposed to one another to be the City of Royal Oak's first mayor.
Dondero was elected 624 to 444. Commissioners elected with him included Gus Dondero, his older brother who polled 690 votes, and James D. Lawson, J.F. Codling, Dr. J.S. Morrison, William J. Mulholland, and J.L. Heckerd. The mayor and his commission met for the first time Dec. 21, 1921.
Royal Oak had become the first village in South Oakland county in 1891 and 30 years later it became the area's first city.
When the first commission met, Dondero was presented an inscribed gavel by Circuit Judge Glenn C. Gillespie on behalf of the Royal Oak Volunteer Fire Department club. Dondero outlined the future of the new city, pointing to potential annexation of surrounding areas and establishment of a central government for the area.
"Here in this city we must establish a spot which shall be a center and a magnet for all the surrounding territory. I hope that here we may establish a central government of which the surrounding territory shall want to become a part."
Major issue in that city campaign was providing improvements - services a growing population requires. Dondero's inaugural speech characterized a caution later to be evident as a congressman during 26 years of Depression and war tumult.
"Ninety per cent of our citizens are wage earners, most of them owning or buying their own homes. We must not go too high for them. So please do not ask for too many expenditures all at once and then be disappointed if we are unable to give them to you."
The city commissioners and mayor split a 4 to 3 vote on one of their first orders of business. They voted on the appointment of R. Bruce Fleming, former labor manager of the Burroughs Adding Machine company, Detroit, as city clerk at a salary of $3,400.
City Hall Issue -
Mayor Dondero and two commissioners favored the hiring of a stenographer for the position, thus saving $320 yearly. They lost.
"Plans which, if carried out, will provide a new 20-room school building, costing approximately $230,000, on the site of the old Union school, at Washington and Lincoln avenues, have been approved conditionally by the board of education."
Another article on the same page said: "Laying of the cornerstone of the new $100,000 First Baptist church at Main Street and University avenue will take place Sunday afternoon at 3 o'clock."
The city hall in which Dondero took office in 1921 was built as a Baptist church in 1839, later served as a Lutheran church, then a township-village hall, and was later moved to Fourth and Pleasant streets, where it now stands as the clubhouse for the Royal Oak Woman's club.
Laid Cornerstone -
On May 4, 1928, Dondero announced, along with Dr. J.S Morrison, that they would not seek re-election to the Royal Oak district No. 6 school board. Dondero had served for the previous 18 years, the last 13 as president.
Dondero laid the cornerstone on Feb. 22, 1927, for the high school at Willis and North Washington which was to late bear his name.
In Position -
On Dec. 7, 1929, Dondero took on another presldent's job - that of president of the Royal Oak Kiwanis club. He was elected in 1931 as president of the Royal Oak Township branch of The Detroit Community Union. He was also re-elected chairman of the South Oakland county Republican Club on June 1, 1932.
The establishment of the new 17th congressional district encompassing Oakland county and the 22nd ward of Wayne county early in 1932 following the '30 census brought a flurry of candidates from both the Republican and Democratic camps for the showdown in the Sept. 13 primary election.
Fourteen Republicans sough the nomination. One was the mayor of Ferndale, another was a judge in Farmington, another a Northville attorney, and and other was Dondero. Thirteen Democrats filed for the primary ballot in that deep depression year.
The Daily Tribune of Sept. 14, 1932, told the story of the primary election: "Results of one of the most baffling primary elections ever held in Oakland county were slowly emerging from the welter of figures this afternoon, as more complete returns were being received from late precincts."
Lead Here -
The official canvass showed Dondero ran first in Oakland county, beating Robert G. Yerkes, 7,753 to 6,599, and ran third in Wayne county with 1,151 votes, behind 3,337 for Roy H. Burgess and 1,358 for Yerkes. This gave Dondero 8,904 votes to 7,957 for Yerkes.
The Democratic nominee was Mayor Harry Mitchell of Pontiac. Against the November Democratic tide that saw Franklin D. Roosevelt elected president and Frank Murphy elected governor of Michigan Dondero defeated Mitchell by 7,500 votes, carrying both Oakland and.Wayne sections of the new district.
Historic Session -
At 47, he became the first representative for the 17th district and first Oakland man in Congress since 1914.
His law practice was taken over by Harry W. Jones, his partner and he went to Washington for the 73rd Congress as a freshman for the great flurry of legislation that marked Roosevelt's first 100 days.
He supported measures to get the banking structure functioning again, the Civilian Conservation Corps and unemployment relief proposals.
Dondero used unemployment relief as a major plank in his platform in 1932, saying, "The cure for the economic ills that affect a great majority of our people should be the first con- sideration of a congressman. When we solve the problem, the others will be easy."
In his campaign in August 1934 to win the Republican nomination for possible re-election, Dondero lashed out at the number of persons being added monthly to the government payrolls. "It is a serious situation when one-sixth of the American people are supported by the public, when in 12 months 100,- 000 are added to the public payroll and $100,000,000 is added to the burden of the taxpayers."
His Democratic opponent in '34 was Charles P. Webster, Pontiac, Democratic chairman of Oakland county. Dondero pollcd 35,562 votes against 29,250 for Webster.
Dondero ran into his stiffest opposition in 1936. Although he lost in Oakland county, strength in Wayne carried the election.
Carried by Wayne -
Draper Allen, of Birmingham, the Oakland conuty Democratic chairman, had narrowly gained the Democratic nomination in the primary by defeating Joe Maynard Seibert, Royal Oak city commissioner, 7,511 to 7,342, a scant 169 votes. lt was the year of the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin's attempt to form a third party coalition against Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The official canvas showed that Dondero had lost Oakland county by 919 votes, but carried in Wayne by 2,059 votes. The total was 51,603 for Dondero, and 50,463 for Allen, a plurality of 1,140.
But on Nov. 5, 1940; with war underway in Europe, Dondero piled up 82,809 votes to 68,195 for Allen.
On Dec. 2, 1941, Dondero was elecled to the board of directors of the Wayne Oakland bank, a position he has held since. He also observed his 58th birthday that year, nine days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II.
In the Nov. 3, 1942, election Dondero was opposed by Mrs. Dorothy Kemp Roosevelt of Birmingham, a sister-in-law of the President. Her husband, G. Hall Roosevelt, was a brother to Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR's wife.
Defeated a Roosevelt -
The United States was at war, and had suffered defeats in the Pacific. The issues included Dondero's stance with pre-war isolationism in foreign affairs. His margin for a sixth term was 13,000 votes.
As a member of the House Public Works Committee, Dondero was growing in seniority and recognition in Washington. A lecture to the House on etiquette gained national attention in 1943. He introduced a two-term Presidential limitation in the House in early '44 as Roosevelt was preparing to seek an unprecedented fourth term as a wartime President. Dondero won the '44 election by 15,000 votes and increased that margin to the largest of his political career in '46, when he defeated his '44 opponent, John W.L. Hicks of Birmingham, by 46,581 votes out of 156,000 votes cast.
Heads Public Works -
It was a Republican Congress and Dondero as the ranking Republican became co-chairman of the powerful Public Works Committee.
Went to Russia -
Two months later he was the ranking Republican member and co-chairman of an eleven man, bipartisan fact-finding and investigating committee which spent the month of August touring 19 European, Asian and African countries and battlefields.
Dondero, on a 1946 committee tour of Europe, was among the first Congressional delegation to visit the Soviet Union.
"The Russian people were very friendly and treated our committee extremely well," Dondero said at the time. "The Russians have nothing we want, and we have nothing they want as far as territorial demands go. Even though our ideas of government differ, both ideas have a right to exist."
In other '46 talks, Dondero said: "Apparently Russia's policy in foreign affairs is that all Europe must be Communistic in order to preserve national security. The people of Europe look on the United States as the last hope of the world."
Developing Viewpoint -
Later before the Oakland County Republican Lincoln Club, he said: "Frankly, I believe we stand at the crossroads. The Communist philosophy of government and our own cannot exist side by side in this land. Some freedom still remains here, but unless a change is made in the direction in which we have been traveling, freedom will die where it was born."
That year, he also introduced the House bill to provide for the Seaway.
In 1947, he introduced a bill which would withdraw the collective bargaining rights of labor unions headed by officials of questionable loyalty. The bill would require groups or organizations whose origin was directly or indirectly of foreign inspiration and whose object was to overthrow the government to register with the secretary of state. He also urged Congress io control the extent to which American labor unions could affiliate with international organizations.
In 1948 the Public Works Committee authorized a $1,040,000 grant for the improvement of Red Run, South Oakland's drainage bottleneck. Its inadequacy resulted in periodic flooding of South Oakland's newly built-up subdivisions and communities.
Dondero and President Truman feuded over Dondero's stand on Federal development of power facilities. Dondero also said - he was against admitting Hawaii and Alaska as states; against increasing the minimum wage, and against the State Department's foreign information service (Voice of America).
He also took a stand for returning the tidewater oil lands to the states, for reducing income taxes, for extending controls over grain used for distilling, and for anti-poll tax legislation.
Margin Down -
In the Nov. 2, 1948, election, Dondero won a ninth term, defeating John J. Brown of Hazel Park, 116,427 to 103,390, a margin of 12,100 votes.
ln 1949 Dondero again drew national attention. He attacked modern art because it depicted "American life as full of nothing but misery, poverty and slums. It is repulsive to decency. It's time Americans realize the danger of this menace to our way of life."
(Dondero received a gold medal from the International Fine Arts council in 1957 for his "'efforts in exposing Communist infiltratlon of American arts.")
Anti-Truman Stand -
During the '50 campalgn year, Dondero was critical of President Truman's Korean war plan which Dondero said would result in socialism and dictatorship. Dondero also defended his vote on military and economic aid to South Korea just prior to the outbreak of hostilities.
The House Committee on Public Works, of which Dondero was first chairman when it was formed after reorganization in 1947, asked for a portrait of Dondero to be hung in the hearing chamber. Royal Oak high school loaned its Dondero portrait until a new one could be painted.
In a special ceremony on Feb. 29, 1956, a portrait of Dondero, painted by New York' artist, Dorothy Drew, was unveiled.in the hearing chamber. It now hangs behind the chairman's chair. A second portrait by Robert Herzberg hangs in the Royal Oak City Commission Chamber.
Choose 18th -
He won a tenth term in '50. Following the census and reapportionment, Oakland became a single Congressional district in 1952. He choose to run from that district rather than the 17th of northwest Detroit because his home was in Royal Oak. Mrs. Martha Griffiths, wife of Gov. G. Mennen Williams' law partner, became the 17th's representative as a Democrat.
A major plank for his '52 campalgn was Seaway completion and he defeated Mayor Arthur Law of Pontiac, by 24,000 votes. Dwight Eisenhower became the first Republican President since Herbert Hoover.
On May 13, 1954, President Eisenhower signed into the law the St. Lawrence Seaway act, co-sponsored by Dondero and Sen. Alexander Wiley (R. Wis.). (The seaway was dedicated in the summer of 1959. It had been opened the previous November.)
For their roles one of the canals in the Seaway was named the Wiley-Dondero Ship canal. In March, 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists invaded the House. One of their bullets struck within two feet of him.
Early Announcement -
Dondero was ever courtly and his deep disagreement on social and economic trend of the times was accepted in Washington without rancor. In early '56, a new portrait was hung by the Public Works Committee and rumors spread that he might not seek re-election.
A few days later, Dondero made his simple announcement: "After careful consideration, I have decided not to seek re-election. I have completed 50 years in public service, having been elected to many offices through the sufferage of a generous people.
"It is a rare experience and a distinct honor in the life of any man to have had the privilege of serving the people of the greatest nation on earth."
Thus he ended 12 consecutive terms, 24 years of service in Congress recurrently beset by Depression, the most widespread war in history, American post war readjustment, Korea and Cold War events.
Opened primary -
Characteristically, his announcement was timed to give Republicans an "open" primary. William S. Broomfield of Royal Oak, of a new generation and then serving as a state senator, won the nomination and was supported by Dondero as a party elder statesman in the fall election.
Dondero returned to his law practice with Jones at the office he had maintained for more than 25 years in 504 Washington Square Building.
He last served in public capacity with the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Commission in 1957 as a Congressional representative.
Sorrowed by Death -
But he was through with active political life, though he took great satisfaction in the election of his son, Stanton Grant Dondero, as an Oakland County circuit judge.
That turned to sorrow at Judge Dondero's untimely death at 49 on June 28, 1965, and the death of his wife of 53 years on Aug. 23, 1966.
In 1968, he missed one of the few annual banquets of the Oakland County Lincoln Republican club; he was convalescing from a stroke. But he returned last year to once again express his admiration for Lincoln, his life long model, and his satisfaction for helping to perpetuate the Lincoln ideas in the Republican party. He had been part of that club nearly all the years if its' existence.
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