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Photo of Senator Ernest McFarland of Arizona

Ernest McFarland
"Father of the GI Bill"

The son of Oklahoma pioneers, Ernest "Mac" McFarland nearly died from a bronchial infection he contracted while serving stateside during World War I. Military surgeons operated on his lungs, then sent him off to recuperate in a drier climate. "Jobless and homeless," he made his way to Phoenix, where he eventually found work as a bookkeeper in a bank. While other veterans struggled in the postwar economy, the future majority leader thrived in Arizona, rising to the state's three highest offices: U.S. senator, governor, and chief justice of the state supreme court.

Throughout his life, McFarland never lost his appreciation for the needs of veterans returning to civilian life. In the Senate, he introduced more than 40 measures promoting the welfare of servicemen and servicewomen. His most important contribution, the famous GI Bill, continues to help finance veterans' educations, housing, and business pursuits. He won acclaim for state issues as well, working with the senior senator, Carl Hayden, to secure funding for Arizona's ambitious irrigation projects.

McFarland saw his authority diminish after his election to majority leader. Serving between 1951 and 1953, he displayed little power compared to the Senate's de facto leaders, fellow Democrat Richard Russell and Republican Robert Taft. In 1952 he lost his Senate seat to Barry Goldwater. McFarland remained politically active for three more decades, however, earning himself the title, Arizona's "favorite son."

Mac McFarland grew up in Earlsboro, Oklahoma, a farming community located within what was then known as the Cherokee Strip, Indian Territory. Following high school, he attended a teachers' college and taught at a country school before graduating from the University of Oklahoma. World War I interrupted his career plans, however, sending him to the Great Lakes Naval School in Illinois. Discharged from the navy in 1919, McFarland saved enough money working in Phoenix to pay his initial tuition at Stanford University in California, where he earned degrees in law and political science.

McFarland moved back to Arizona and passed the bar exam. From 1925 to 1930, he served as Pinal County attorney, his first elected office. In private practice, he became an expert in agricultural and water-use legislation, representing the San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District. He also defended the notorious "trunk murderess," Winnie Ruth Judd, who killed two of her closest friends. McFarland and his law partner secured an insanity verdict, saving Judd from the death penalty and raising their reputations within the state.

As McFarland built his legal career, he experienced a series of personal tragedies. Within one year, both his son and baby daughter died. Shortly thereafter, his grief-stricken wife became ill and passed away. In 1933 McFarland remarried and adopted his second wife's daughter. The following year, he won election as a judge to the Pinal County Superior Court.

In 1940 McFarland entered Arizona's Senate race. The 28-year Democratic incumbent, Henry Ashurst, appeared to be unbeatable and did not launch an aggressive campaign to retain his seat. While Ashurst remained in Washington, McFarland canvassed the state, giving speeches on water issues and the war in Europe. By a three-to-one margin, he defeated Ashurst in the primary and went on to win the general election.

During his first Senate term, as a member of the Committees on Indian Affairs and Irrigation and Reclamation, McFarland helped draft land and water-use legislation benefiting his constituents. For several years, he and Senator Hayden lobbied for a major irrigation system, the Central Arizona Project, and directed its passage through the Senate. (Held up in the House, the C.A.P. authorization bill became law in 1968.) At the same time, McFarland became increasingly involved in legislation regarding communications and the armed forces.

Speaking before the American Legion in 1943, McFarland presented his plan to reintegrate veterans into society at the conclusion of World War II. The original proposal had three components: bonuses for each returning GI based on the number of days spent in domestic and overseas service; monthly assistance for GIs to attend high school, college, and vocational schools; and funds for down payments on homes, farms, or businesses. McFarland introduced the first of several GI bills in October, then worked behind the scenes to ensure support from veterans organizations and members of Congress, including Missouri senator Joel "Champ" Clark, who directed the Senate hearings and helped revise the bill that became the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944. By unanimous votes, the Senate and the House approved the legislation in March and May, respectively and, on June 22, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the GI Bill into law.

McFarland easily won his reelection campaign in 1946, while his success with veterans' affairs propelled him to greater responsibility within the Senate. As chairman of a Commerce subcommittee, he helped plan a postwar role for the United States in international communications, rewriting the Communications Act of 1934. Beginning in 1949, he co-chaired the Joint Committee on the Navajo-Hopi Administration, which shaped legislation providing roads, hospitals, and schools for the two Indian reservations. Meanwhile, he monitored Senate floor proceedings for Democratic Majority Leader Scott Lucas.

Linked to President Harry Truman's unpopular administration, Lucas and Democratic Whip Francis Myers lost their reelection campaigns in 1950. Richard Russell, one of the remaining party leaders, feared that the next majority leader would meet a similar fate and chose not to succeed Lucas. Instead, he encouraged his colleagues to elect the amiable McFarland as majority leader and aggressive Texas senator Lyndon Johnson as party whip.

More a legislative craftsman than a commanding ruler, Majority Leader McFarland did not make a significant impact on Senate proceedings. Given that the Republicans, when allied with the southern Democrats, actually held the balance of power in the narrowly divided Chamber, McFarland served mainly as a compromise maker. He maintained good relationships with President Truman and Lyndon Johnson and rarely drew attention outside of the Senate. He did speak out on one issue: Senator Joseph McCarthy's charges of communism in the government. Deciding that the time had come to "strike back" against "wild statements and character attacks," McFarland declared, "When the name of any member of the Senate becomes an adjective for mudslinging, we have come a far way from the tradition of those great men who preceded us here."

Like Scott Lucas and earlier leaders, McFarland found it difficult to campaign for his next election while handling the floor proceedings in the Senate. And as his state became more conservative, he could not escape his association with Truman, despite claiming independence from the administration. His 1952 defeat to Goldwater, however, was only a momentary setback. The following year, McFarland founded the Arizona Television Company, and in 1954 he won election to the state house. After two terms as governor, he tried to unseat Goldwater in 1958 but lost the rematch. Returning to his legal career, he joined the state supreme court in 1964 and became chief justice in 1968. Until his death in 1984, he worked to modernize Arizona, expanding the state's education, broadcasting, and irrigation systems. Outside Arizona, however, veterans remember McFarland for an earlier achievement, his distinctive role as the "Father of the GI Bill."