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F. Nordy Hoffman: Sergeant at Arms


Photograph of Frank "Nordy" Hoffmann

“…they called me "Digger Hoffmann" for a while, because I think we buried eight senators while I was up there.”

Nordy Hoffman, charged with coordinating funeral arrangements as the Senate Sergeant at Arms, talks about making mistakes and learning on the job.


HOFFMAN: One of the things we did for senators' offices--they called me "Digger Hoffmann" for a while, because I think we buried eight senators while I was up there--was running their funerals. The funerals were run in cooperation with people all over Washington, the FBI, the Secret Service, and the military. Most of the time I tried to listen, but once I didn't listen. I was motivated to do this thing the way I thought it ought to be done, and I was so wrong that I admit I was wrong, totally. We went to John McClellan's funeral in Arkansas, and I said that every senator ought to have his own car. Well, about forty or fifty senators went to that funeral. That means forty separate cars in a long line, and it was raining something awful. Most of the senators didn't get to the grave in time because they were backed up on the highway. Then I thought how stupid I was.

The next time we went to a funeral, we had a bus for all the senators--except the leadership on both sides--we provided them with cars. We found out after the second funeral that on the third funeral the leadership wanted to ride in the bus with everybody else. So we dispensed with all these cars. That was an expense. We weren't looking at it as an expensive thing, but it was a lot cheaper to ride in a bus than to rent forty cars with drivers to take them where they had to go. You learn those kind of things. It was a learning experience. Nobody gave me this in a chart to tell me where to go. After we left, we had all these things documented, and people could read how they work the funerals.

The largest funeral we had was for Senator [Hubert] Humphrey, the former Vice President. He died in Minneapolis, right after Christmas, I think it was over New Years, because some of the senators we had to get back from the Super Bowl, and that was being played in New Orleans at the time. We had to bring them into Minneapolis. It was our responsibility to get all the senators back there who wanted to go to the funeral. I had talked to the White House from home, when President Carter was there, we talked to his lead people up there about transportation. They wanted to know if I wanted to use Air Force One. I said, "Yes, I would like to use Air Force One, and I'll give you the reason. In the back of Air Force One you have a rear door, and you don't have one in any other plane in your fleet. We could take those four seats out of there and put the coffin in the same level as the passengers." They agreed with that.

Another thing that came out of the experience I told you about, lousing up the funeral for McClellan, it was suggested to me that maybe I should have a little luncheon for all the people who were involved in these funerals. So we did. We got some ham and things, they made their own sandwiches, and we had this meeting for all the key people involved in funerals, and we got to know them by their first names. As a result of that, when Humphrey died, as I recall on a Friday night, I called Patty McNally who was then my secretary, and said, "Patty, would you see if you can get all of these people,"--because we had their home phone numbers; this was about ten o'clock--"and ask them if they can come to a meeting at one a.m. in the Sergeant at Arms Office." Strangely enough, everybody was there. It was the greatest thing. I felt that this was real cooperation. Air Force One took off from here around five thirty or six o'clock to get the body and bring it back, along with Mrs. Humphrey. We brought it back and everything went off beautifully--it was just one of those things that doesn't happen too often. I remember when we went back to Minnesota for the funeral, one of the things that I've always kept in my mind, I was standing at the airport and Senator [Mike] Mansfield had just come in from Japan. He was not a senator, he was our Ambassador to Japan at the time. He flew back and he arrived at the airport when we did. A reporter went up to him, and I was standing just waiting to talk to Senator Mansfield, and the reporter said to him: "Isn't this a long way to come for a funeral?" Senator Mansfield's reply will always remain in my mind. He said, "No place is too far to come for a friend." I thought that was indicative of what the Senate really means to the people that belong to the Senate. It verifies that the people who take public office, and find out the kind of rapport you have, that democracy must be a very strong thing. That's basically what the Senate is all about.