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Funkley goes to New York: Town made national news with 1953 American Cancer Society trip

Jim Hannigan looks over the four-page photo article in the May 25, 1953 edition of Life magazine. The photos depicted Funkley’s trip to New York City. — Molly Miron | Special to the Pioneer

By Molly Miron Special to the Pioneer FUNKLEY — In 1953, Funkley, with a population 25 and area of .6 square miles, was the smallest incorporated city in Minnesota. Currently home to five people, Funkley is still the state’s least populous city.

But Funkley made the national news in May 1953 when a textile company, Pacific Mills, hosted a trip for the entire population to travel to New York City and Washington, D.C. The company was working at the time with the American Cancer Society in a nationwide drive to collect used sheets to be made into cancer dressings. The excursion was also featured in a four-page photo spread in the May 25, 1953, Life magazine — the edition with a leggy cover photo of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell decked out in red sequined gowns. The magazine and many photos of the trip are on display at the Blackduck History and Art Center. A reception with some of the people who took the trip on hand will be held from 1-3 p.m. June 22.

“Back in those days, they didn’t cure cancer; they treated it,” said Roger Hannigan, who was a member of the contingent along with his brother, Jim, and parents, Dave and Gladys. He was a sophomore at Blackduck High School then, and his brother was a BHS junior.

The Women’s Missionary Society of the Evangelical Free Church joined the campaign by making 4,371 cancer dressings. According to newspaper accounts at the time, 100 percent of Funkley women, as well as some rural residents, participated in the cancer dressings program.

Led by the late Mayor Ed Woodin (78 and in office since 1916) the group left Funkley on a Northern Pacific sleeper train May 5, 1953. The Blackduck Civic and Commerce Association gave them a big sendoff at the high school auditorium. A chartered bus met them in Anoka and ferried them to the Wold-Chamberlain Airport where they boarded a Northwest Airlines plane named the Funkley Fights Cancer Special.

“They had a big sign on the plane — Funkley to New York,” Roger said.

Jim Hannigan said some of the highlights in New York were a New York Giants baseball game where they were introduced to the team managers, viewing the city from the top of the Empire State Building and supper at Sardi’s.

The group toured the United Nations Security Council as special guests.

“We were on the ‘Today Show with Dave Garroway.’ We were on the Gary Moore show, too,” Jim said. “They really went all out.”

The original plan was just the trip to New York, but the hosts decided that as long as the Funkley folks were on the East Coast, they should see Washington, D.C., too.

“It was kind of an impromptu thing,” Roger said. “There were so many things we did. We had a good time.”

Shirley Latterell, now 92, recalled meeting President Dwight Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon at the White House. Eisenhower came out into the Rose Garden to visit with the Funkley group, she said.

“Nixon came out and talked to us a while,” Roger said. “I gave him a statuette of Paul and Babe.”

He added Eisenhower was a “really affable guy,” who said he’d give his Paul and Babe souvenir to his grandson. Mayor Woodin, 78, missed out on the presidential visit because he had slipped in a bathtub and cracked some ribs.

When asked where else they would like to go in Washington, the boys in the group, Jim and Roger, Thomas and Richard Nagel and Richard Stransky, said they wanted to see the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover met them and shook their hands, Jim said.

Because the Washington visit was unscheduled and they didn’t have reservations, Shirley said they had to double up in the Mayflower Hotel. Their stay in New York at the Henry Hudson Hotel was more luxurious, she said, as they all had their own rooms with individual bathrooms.

“Nicer than at home,” she said. “I think I remember everything. It was an impressive time of my life.”

She said the group went to a small cafe across the street from the Mayflower Hotel for breakfast one day. The owner was shocked at the size of the crowd and said he couldn’t manage to serve so many people at once. Roger said they told him, “You just sit down and we’ll make breakfast.” He said the women cooked and washed up the dishes after everyone had eaten.

During the New York stay, the group also celebrated the first birthday of Nancy Nagel, daughter of Al and Lydia Nagel.

Roger, Jim and Shirley are all veterans of the Army, Air Force and WAVEs, respectively. The brothers returned to New York in the line of duty after the Pacific Mills trip. Shirley served during World War II. Jim said a police officer saw him in uniform before he shipped out for Iceland and gave him tickets to the Scrap Iron Johnson prize fight in Madison Square Garden.

When the Funkley folks returned to Minnesota, residents of Northome threw them a welcome home party.

Roger and Shirley said the trip was eye opening, but they weren’t awed by New York and Washington. And they said they wouldn’t want to live in either of those cities.

“The only thing we knew about New York was from movies and Movietone News,” Roger said. “People were nice. I’ve always believed people are the same everywhere you go.”