“I think it was simply a slip of judgment at that particular time that caused him to take the position that he did.”
Michael J. Dowling
There is no question that the story of Michael J. Dowling’s life is one of the most inspiring stories about overcoming the adversity of a disability. This incredible story took a positive turn in the life of Dowling as a result, in part, of the poor judgment of a local county commissioner.
Dowling’s early years were extremely challenging; with the loss of his mother at a very young age he drifted alone through the upper Midwest from the age of 10 working on steamboats, lumber camps and farms. One fateful day in 1880, just outside of Canby, Minnesota the 15 year old farmhand was riding on the back of a wagon when he and his companions were assaulted unexpectedly by a gigantic Minnesotan blizzard. He was accidentally thrown from the back of the wagon and because of the wind and blinding snow was lost by his companions to presumably perish in a 50° Fahrenheit-below wind-chill.
Fortunately for Dowling, he happened upon a hay mound while groping in the driving snow. He burrowed in for the evening and woke up the next morning to find his legs and arms frozen stiff. Both of his legs had to be amputated 6 inches below each knee along with his left arm below the elbow and most of the fingers of his right hand. If there was one thing that young Dowling learned in his years of drifting, it was how to fight and he determined not to let the circumstances defeat him. “There was just one thing for me to do if I did not have any legs or arms, and that was to polish up the machinery above my neck.”
Over the next couple of years Dowling became a voracious reader and sought to teach himself as much as he could. His healing was helped along by the Christian charity of many in Canby who assisted him in what we would call physical therapy today and by providing him with a place to live. Dowling was determined not to be a burden on anyone and came up with a novel idea at age 17 to have the county, who was responsible for the welfare of the indigent at the time, send him to Carleton College to finish off the polishing of the machinery above his neck.
The three-member Yellow Medicine County Board had two crusty old Norwegians, one a longtime farmer and the other a salty old sailor. The chairman of the board was a headstrong Yankee from Maine with years of education. When the question of “what will we do with Mike” came up, the board chair indicated he had already made arrangements with a good farm family to care for Mike at a cost to the county of $2 a week. One of the Norwegian commissioners asked for Mike’s opinion as he was standing nearby on his knees fitted with pads to allow him to walk. Dowling approached the board to make a direct and forceful appeal to send him to Carleton College. The board was reluctant, but Dowling did get them to agree to sleep on it a day. Gaining his first education in the political process, Dowling quickly marched over on his knees to the office of his friend the county auditor. The auditor also happened to be Norwegian and Dowling implored him to work on his two kindred Norwegian Council members.
The next day the vote was 2 – 1 with the two Norwegian commissioners voting to approve the funds to send Mike to Carleton College. Dowling was determined to prove his Norwegian benefactors were right. Eventually acquiring prosthetic legs and arm, he taught himself to be self-sufficient. He went on to succeed at Carleton College and become a teacher. He quickly rose to be superintendent of schools in Olivia and to own a local newspaper. In 1896 he served as a clerk in the Minnesota House of Representatives, a short-term temporary position of the time, and decided that he wanted to have a vote in that chamber. In 1900 he was elected to the House during a year when many progressives won office. Taking his fearless attitude of attempting the impossible, he put together a coalition to become the only freshman legislator ever to be elected Speaker of the House. Later in life he became a successful banker. Together with his wife, he helped start the Dowling School for the disabled and a camp which eventually became what is now known as the Courage Center. He also became a leading advocate for rehabilitation of disabled soldiers returning from WW I.
Despite his success Dowling never held a grudge against the board chair for opposing his desire to attend a Carleton College. The above quote was Dowling’s assessment of the position of the board chair some 38 years later. Just a “slip of judgment”, but it certainly was a motivator for this determined Irish fighter for the rest of his life. Therefore, when it was recently suggested by a few in the Republican Senate Caucus and the Senate Majority Leader that maybe the state of Minnesota should use the constitutionally dedicated Legacy account dedicated to the preservation of our history and culture to help fund a Vikings stadium, it is worth taking a cue from Dowling’s gracious response and simply refer to this modern-day political blunder as just a “slip of judgment”.
The Star Tribune recently quoted Senate majority leader Amy Koch as saying, “The Vikings are part of our history. They’ve been here 50 years since ’61. They are important to most Minnesotans. We need to keep them here. It’s important to keep an open mind to options.” Certainly one needs to be keeping an open mind, but this idea simply did not pass the smell test. A recent poll showed that 77% of Minnesotans thought it was a bad idea. Thanks to the quick leadership by Republican Sen. Bill Ingebrigsten and Rep. Dean Urdahl, the idea was quickly discredited.
The good news out of this “slip of judgment” is that there is a greater understanding of the purpose of the Legacy funds and the public’s support to protect these important investments is only becoming more solidified. That’s something that the progressive former Republican Speaker the House Dowling would have likely graciously concurred.
*Rehabilitation of the Wounded, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, volume LXXX, November 1918, pp. 47-48.