When young Joe Teasdale won the Missouri gubernatorial race against incumbent Christopher “Kit” Bond in 1976, few were more surprised than Teasdale himself. That fact became increasingly evident on that election night nearly 38 years ago, as a ballroom-full of supporters waited, and waited, and waited for their man to come down from his hotel suite above, and make his acceptance speech.
After learning of Teasdale's death Thursday at age 78, I had a flashback to a November night in 1976.
I was a young reporter, about two years on the job for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, when editors assigned me to go to Kansas City, to cover what everyone had expected would be the Jackson County prosecuting attorney’s concession after Bond’s presumed victory.
But it wasn’t long after the polls closed, that it began to appear that Teasdale might have actually won.
When I called the newsroom to check with my boss and night city editor, Harry Levins, declared: “You’ve got a winner, kid. Get on it.”
In those days before cell phones, laptop computers and Twitter, reporters had to rely on their wits. Where was the nearest phone, and how could I stake a claim on it?
While other reporters were milling around the ballroom, I made nice with the front desk crew at the hotel. I explained my situation, and that I was a guest at this hotel, having been booked in for my overnight stay. Might I be able to use a typewriter and telephone in the back office?
Just like that, I had secured one of the few links, other than a pair of pay-phone booths in the lobby, with the outside world.
Time grew late and deadline approached. But still no Teasdale. We speculated that he and his team were trying to draft a speech they had never expected to make. But something had to be produced for the early edition of the newspaper.
I managed to take the elevator to the floor where Teasdale was encamped. In the hallway outside his suite, I met his mother, Ada Maurine Teasdale. It was through polite conversation with her that I was able to coax out a few stories about her son. Finally, I had my own angle to phone in to the City Desk.
Was she surprised that her son had won? Not so much, said the mother. “He was always a good boy,” she said. “I always knew he could do it.”
More Teasdale remembrances, by political reporter Jo Mannies
Teasdale’s young, charismatic and colorful personality appeared to signal a long political career and a boon to fellow Democrats. But within four years, he was out of office when Bond reclaimed the governor’s mansion during the GOP resurgence in 1980.
The outsider image that Teasdale had cultivated as a candidate — and which may have clinched his 1976 victory — didn't appear to be a help in Jefferson City, where he and his administration often found itself at odds with many of the better-connected politicians in both parties. That included some of the Democrats then controlling the General Assembly.
A fellow Democrat, then-Treasurer Jim Spainhower, even launched an unsuccessful challenge to oust Teasdale in the 1980 Democratic primary, further weakening Teasdale for his rematch with Bond.
But after that loss, Teasdale simply went back home. He set up a private law practice in Kansas City, and represented some notable clients. He also embraced a very private life – eschewing all politics and rarely giving interviews.
Teasdale’s death on Thursday, at the age of 78, resurrected both images, as fellow Democrats recounted the achievements that Teasdale never took public credit for.
Said Gov. Jay Nixon, a fellow Democrat: “By the time he was elected as governor in 1976 at the age of 40, Gov. Teasdale already had a record of accomplishment. As an assistant U.S. attorney in Kansas City, he headed up the organized crime section; then at the age of 30, he became the youngest prosecuting attorney in the history of Jackson County.
“During his tenure as governor, Gov. Teasdale was especially known for his actions in support of Missouri seniors,” Nixon added. “He created the Division of Aging, he pushed for passage of the Nursing Home Reform Act, and he supported removal of the state sales tax on prescription drugs.”
Nixon also observed that “the pages of Missouri’s political history were made richer with the image of ‘Walkin’ Joe.’ ”
Indeed, Missouri Democratic Party chairman Roy Temple recalled that as a boy, Teasdale’s 1976 campaign had been an inspiration. “I just vividly remember hearing about ‘Walkin' Joe’ as a kid,” Temple said.
Temple added that he and other party leaders and activists were sad to hear of Teasdale’s death. “We extend our condolences to his family,” Temple said, “ and thank them for sharing him with Missouri.”