He was a natural. Ask those who knew him and they will tell you Jerry Litton had it all — that he was the real deal, the total package. He could have, would have, should have been president of the United States, they say, and his tragic death launched a cascade of “what ifs” that continues more than 30 years later.
“This guy was unique,” observes Ed Turner, Litton’s fraternity brother, who became his campaign manager and chief of staff. “I think you only see one like him in a lifetime.”
Jerry Lon Litton was born in 1937 on a farm near Lock Springs in north-central Missouri. An only child, he was a typical country kid who loved sports, comic books and animals.
• Litton traveled from three-room farmhouse to halls of Congress.
• The innovative cattleman spoke out for American agriculture.
• Promise of even greater things to come ended in tragedy.
It didn’t take long for him to become not so typical. His FFA involvement at Chillicothe High School developed talents that would shape the Litton legend: public speaking prowess that could make you laugh or cry, and a sharp eye for good cattle. Distinctions aplenty marked those high school years. He was chapter and state FFA president, national FFA secretary and a member of National Honor Society, in addition to playing sports and showing livestock.
At the University of Missouri, Litton continued to be the guy you’d vote “most likely to succeed.” He was president of Alpha Gamma Rho Fraternity, vice president of the student body, an in-demand speaker and active in politics.
While still in college, Litton married the girl back home, Sharon Ann Summerville, who had been Miss Chillicothe and runner-up for Miss Missouri. After he graduated with a degree in ag journalism, the couple returned to the family farm, where Litton convinced his folks to help him invest in a cattle breed hardly anyone in 1958 Missouri had ever seen. He bought a three-quarters Charolais bull, and when the crossbred calves brought $58 more per head than his straight Herefords, Litton mortgaged everything he had, borrowed all he could and took the plunge.
A legendary cattleman
Litton Charolais Ranch took off like a skyrocket. Combining promotional savvy with innovative cattle breeding, Jerry Litton was king of the mountain in the 1960s, when demand for “exotic” cattle boomed. He sold bulls and females everywhere. He won all the big shows and knew how to draw attention to the new breed. At the American Royal, he once had a Playboy bunny show a Litton bull.
Far more important was his pioneering work with estimated breeding values, the precursor to expected progeny differences, or EPDs.
“He was using methods nobody else even knew about,” says Bonnie Mitchell, who was hired by Litton in 1971 to write computer programs to analyze mountains of data. “He was constantly evaluating breeding values. We kept records on everything, and he used that information. He was definitely ahead of his time.”
Many Charolais pedigrees still boast Litton’s famous FWT Bar 951 “Sam” bull.
A legendary politician
In 1972, the cattleman turned to politics and, in a strong GOP year that sent Kit Bond to the governorship and Richard Nixon to the presidency, the young Democrat won the responsibility of serving northwest Missouri in the U.S. Congress.
So, Mr. Litton went to Washington and became a star there, just like everywhere else. He told friends politics wasn’t much different from cattle ranching. “I’ve been stepping in this stuff all my life,” he said.
Litton’s focus was agriculture. He successfully fought President Nixon’s executive order allowing USDA to inspect farmers’ tax returns. A fiscal conservative, he co-sponsored a bill to prevent congressional representatives from voting themselves pay raises, and returned his second-term pay raise, asking that it be applied to the national debt.
The young congressman’s television show, “Dialogue with Litton,” broke new ground in bringing politics to the people. It featured town hall meetings, with Litton hosting major political figures of the day. Shown across the state, it outdrew “Monday Night Football” by 15%.
Litton’s famous speech, “Food Prices Too High? Compared to What?” gave farmers a champion in Washington. “One of the reasons the American people have that color TV and that second car and that better house and nicer vacation is because of, not in spite of, the price of food,” he asserted.
Asked by a fellow congressman when steak would cost less than a dollar a pound again, Litton replied, “When we see $12,500-a-year congressmen again.”
His two congressional terms earned him rural and urban respect. New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm said Litton changed the way she viewed — and voted on — farm issues.
In 1976, Jerry Litton was poised to take another step forward. Seeking the Democratic nomination for the Senate, Litton steamrolled his nearest opponent by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.
He never even knew he’d won. On Aug. 3, 1976, leaving Chillicothe for an anticipated victory celebration in Kansas City, Litton’s plane crashed just after takeoff, killing Litton and his wife, Sharon, and their children Linda and Scott, along with the pilot and his son.
Jerry Litton was only 39 years old.
Newscaster Walter Cronkite summed up the loss: “It may be a long time before we see the likes of Jerry Litton again.”
Parker writes from Parsons, Kan.
This article published in the November, 2010 edition of MISSOURI RURALIST.