30 January 2016
An old photograph shows Comerford links
with FDR, the Kennedys and a Pope
In recent days I came across a photograph taken 80 years ago during Cardinal Pacelli’s amazing flying visit to the US in 1936 to meet President Roosevelt. Pacelli later became Pope Pius XII, and although he was not yet Pope he became the first Pope to have ever visited the US at any time in his life.
Before the cardinal met Roosevelt in Hyde Park, he was photographed with a number of key figures involved in the visit, including Joseph P Kennedy, father of the Kennedy brothers, the amazing Count Enrico Galeazzi, and Frank Comerford Walker, the grandson of John Comerford, a Kilkenny-born emigrant whose descendants gave the Comerford family name to a large cinema chain in Pennsylvania.
Cardinal Pacelli visited the US for two weeks in October-November 1936 as the Vatican Secretary of State, and at the time he was the highest-ranking Catholic Church official ever to visit the US. During his visit, Pacelli met President Franklin D Roosevelt, investigated Roosevelt’s radio critic, Father Charles Coughlin, and visited New York City, Washington DC, Boston, Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Chicago.
The media nicknamed him “the Flying Cardinal” due to his five-day coast-to-coast air tour. Pacelli planned to silence Coughlin for Roosevelt in exchange for his support against Communism and in return for diplomatic recognition of the sovereignty of Vatican City.
The visit was so important to the Vatican that during Pacelli's absence from Rome Pope Pius XI cut short his holiday in the Castel Gandolfo and returned to the Vatican.
Pacelli finally met with Roosevelt at the president’s home in Hyde Park, New York, for two hours over lunch on 5 November, the day this photograph was taken. Pacelli congratulated Roosevelt on his election victory the previous day. At a press conference, Cardinal Spellman told the press corps that they were banned from asking any questions about Father Coughlin, and warned them Cardinal Pacelli would not answer such questions.
Frank Comerford Walker (1886-1959), who is seen in this photograph on the margins of this meeting between Rossevelt and the future Pope, was an American lawyer and politician. He later became the 51st US Postmaster General (1940-1945), and also served as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee (1943-1944).
He was born on 30 May 1886 in Plymouth, Pennsylvania. His father was David Walker (1848-1902), who was born in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, in October 1848 and who died on 7 May 1902 in Butte Silver Bow County, Montana. He was involved with mining interests in Butte until he died in 1902. His mother was Ellen Comerford Walker (1851-1916).
Ellen ‘Ella’ Comerford Walker was the eldest of ten children of John Comerford (ca 1820/1827-1880), who was born in Co Kilkenny. He was an anthracite coal miner who emigrated to the US, probably in the late 1840s. He married Catherine Devey, also from Co Kilkenny, in Saint Kieran’s Church, Heckscherville, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, in 1850. John died in 1880 and is buried in Saint Vincent de Paul Cemetery in Pennsylvania.
John and Catherine Comerford had ten children, five daughters and five sons. Their sons included Father Thomas J Comerford (1855-1924), who was a close friend of and baptised John Mitchell (1870-1919), President of the United Mine Workers’ Union, and Michael E Comerford (1865-1939), founder of the Comerford cinema chain.
Ella was the eldest daughter in this Comerford family, and was born in June 1851 in Heckscherville, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. She married David Walker (1848-1902) in Plymouth, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. They moved to Butte County, Montana, where they raised their six children:
● 1a, Katherine (1875-1950), who married John W Cotter (1861-1903), of Boston, Massacussetts.
● 2a, (Judge) Thomas Joseph Walker (1878-1945). Born 25 March 1878. Educated All Hallows’ College, Salt Lake City, Georgetown University (classical studies), and he University of Virginia (LL.B, 1902). In September 1940, he was appointed a judge of the US customs court in New York. He married on 7 June 1905 Maud Galen, daughter of Hugh and Matilda Galen of Helena. They had no children.
● 3a, Mary (Mollie) (1885-1945), married in 1934 Clyde Graves of Spokane.
● 4a, Frank Comerford Walker (1886-1959), US Postmaster General (1940-1945) and chairman of the Democratic National Committee (1943-1944).
● 5a, Nellie (1891-1940), of Butte, Montana, married John C Gaul (1886-1950), and had a daughter and a son: Ellen M Gaul (1915-1997), who married firstly, James Walter Smart (died 1951), and secondly Everett Earl Crawford (1909-1980); and James Walker Gaul (1922-2010).
● 6a, Margaret Petronella (Pet) (1893-1963); educated Saint Patrick’s School, Butte, Montana, and Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, Purchase, New York; she married John J McCarthy of Boston and Greenwich, Connecticut.
Ella (Comerford) and David Walker are buried in Saint Patrick’s Cemetery, Butte, Silver Bow County, Montana.
Their second son, Frank Comerford Walker, entered Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, in 1906, and earned a law degree from Notre Dame Law School in 1909. He then joined his older brother Thomas in a law practice in Butte, Montana. In 1913, he was elected to a term as a Montana state representative.
During World War I, Walker volunteered for the US Army. He became a first lieutenant and saw action on the Western Front. After the war, he returned to his law practice in Montana.
The two Walker brothers had an impressive list of clients from the railroad and mining industries. Frank developed his political skill and genius in the period known as the “Copper Wars,” when capital and labour battled openly in the mining industry. He developed an astute political mind through experience with political figures like the great Senator from Montana, Thomas ‘Tea Pot Dome’ Walsh, who was his mentor and friend for over 30 years.
In 1925, Frank moved to New York City, where he become manager and general counsel of Comerford Theaters, a chain of cinemas owned by his uncle Michael E Comerford (1865-1939).
In New York, he expanded his political activities, and he supported Franklin D Roosevelt’s campaigns for governor in 1928. In 1931, he co-founded the Roosevelt for President Society. In 1932, he became Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and until Roosevelt’s death, he was one of his closest advisers.
When Roosevelt became President in 1933, he appointed Walker executive secretary of the National Emergency Council, a New Deal agency related to the NRA.
He was responsible for drafting the 1934 Housing Bill which had an impact on the depressed construction industry, creating the Federal Housing Authority, benefiting the dispossessed and homeless, bailing out farmers, enabling the mortgage industry to recover, and creating jobs for the unemployed.
He was appointed Postmaster General on 10 September 1940, succeeding James Farley, who had also chaired the DNC and was Roosevelt’s campaign manager.
As Postmaster General, he established the V-mail system to reduce the weight and bulk of mail to US troops abroad and expanded the delivery of mail to rural areas throughout the US. While he was Postmaster General, he continued his role as political adviser, often taking part in matters far removed from the Post Office. For instance, during the negotiations before the attack on Pearl Harbor December 1941, he was in regular contact with the Japanese Ambassador, Admiral Kichisaburō Nomura.
During World War II, Walker helped FDR educate an isolationist population in the US about the world, Lend Lease, Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. With the erosion of human rights and “human dignity held hostage” in Europe and Asia, Walker stepped to the fore. His speeches were broadcast nationally.
Roosevelt and Walker fought hard against the Republican Party’s platform of isolation. Their warnings of German aggression and stories of the Holocaust were limited by partisan Republican politics.
In 1943, Walker also became chairman of the DNC, serving until 1944. In 1944, he stepped down from the DNC, and was succeeded by Robert Hannegan.
In May 1945, Walker announced his retirement as Postmaster General, to allow President Harry Truman to appoint his own candidate to the office. Truman selected Hannegan to succeed Walker and later in 1945, he appointed Walker a member of the US delegation to the United Nations General Assembly at its first session in London.
Later he returned to his business interests in New York as director of WR Grace & Co and the Grace National Bank of New York. Frank Comerford Walker also served on the Board of Lay Trustees of Notre Dame University, worked for the Notre Dame Foundation, and was a member of the Notre Dame Club of New York. He was given an honorary degree in 1934 and the University’s Laetare Medal in 1948.
He died in New York City on September 13, 1959, at the age of 73.
He married Hallie V Boucher (1892-1969), daughter of Frank Boucher and Laura (Adams) of Butte, Montana. She was born on 28 August 1892 in Butte, Montana, and died on 9 December 1969 in Greenwich, Connecticut. They are both buried in Saint Patrick’s Cemetery, Butte, Montana.
Frank Comerford Walker donated his papers to the Archives of the University of Notre Dame in 1948, although the entire collection was not transferred until after his death.
An oral history was conducted with his son and daughter, Thomas J Walker and Laura Walker Jenkins in 1990.
His grandson, TJ Walker, who lives in North Carolina, says that “in many ways [Frank Comerford Walker was] an initiator and overseer of the New Deal.” His story “may be of benefit to our challenged and hero-starved democracy. His example could help to foster another (21st century) course-correction through a greater and deeper awareness of the FDR legacy.”
A compelling part of the story is the personal friendship between FDR and FCW – a friendship that was uncharacteristic of Roosevelt’s relationship with most other colleagues. They shared similar political philosophies and party politics from the time they first met in Montana. They made speeches for each other, travelled the country together, and shared many friends.
His life, his deeds and his speeches depict many of the humanitarian concepts and ethics of the New Deal he helped to bring to fruition as aide to FDR. His great record of service and his special, if not secret, relationship with Roosevelt is, however, missing from the commonly known history of the FDR administration.