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."