Meet Steve Jenne: former Boy Scout, Vietnam veteran, and keeper of one of our country’s most sacred historical artifacts: a half-eaten sandwich that once touched the lips of our 37th president, Richard Milhouse Nixon. On Tuesday that sandwich turned 60 years young, making this as good a time as ever to reflect upon the history of this national treasure.
It was a cloudless, slightly warm autumn day in 1960 when Nixon came to Sullivan, Illinois; population 3,946. In advance of that year’s presidential election, local Republican leaders had invited then-vice president Nixon and his opponent John F. Kennedy to a debate in their corner of the Midwest; Kennedy’s camp declined, but to everyone’s surprise, Nixon’s accepted. On the morning of September 22, Air Force Two landed at Decatur Airport, and Nixon stepped into a black limousine to head to Sullivan along a road filled with spectators. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Steve Jeanne was sitting in school, anxiously awaiting the most important moment of his life.
“The schools got out, I think, I want to say at noon,” said Jenne in an interview with the Herald & Review. “I’m not sure if we if we were in school all day or not. I believe it was a Friday and we got out at noon.”
In lieu of a debate, the local Republican Club hosted a cookout at Sullivan’s Wyman Park, drawing thousands of people anxious to get a glimpse of the vice president and eat sandwiches. Jenne and his Boy Scout troop were called upon to act as honor guard, escorting Nixon and his wife, Pat, to the park’s picnic pavilion, where they were served barbecue buffalo sandwiches, courtesy of a local bison farm.
“My Boy Scout troop was assigned as security... just as luck would have it, I was right behind Vice President Nixon,” said Jenne.
“They served him a buffalo barbecue sandwich on one of those 6-inch paper plates, and he took a couple of bites and commented on how good and tasty it was, and that was about it.”
After taking a quick bite, Nixon was whisked away to make a stump speech, with the large crowds following close behind. Soon enough, Jenne was all alone with the half-eaten sandwich that would change his life. Looking around to make sure no one saw him, he grabbed the sandwich, hopped on his bicycle, and flew back home to show a little piece of history to his mother. Jenne describes the event thus:
I ran in the door, I said, “Mom I’ve got the sandwich that Nixon took a couple of bites of!” She was surprised and said, “Well, what do you want me to do with it?” I said, “Freeze it,” so she, in her infinite wisdom, put it in a plastic baggie and put that inside of a Musselman’s applesauce jar, stuck it in the freezer, and that’s the way it still is today 60 years later.
Jenne’s sandwich was no more than a treasured family heirloom until 1988, when a local newspaper story went national, and the producers of The Tonight Show took notice. On December 4, after appearances by Steve Martin and Helen Shaver, Jenne walked out on the set, sat down between Johnny Carson and his sidekick Ed McMahon, and introduced his beloved sandwich/Nixon DNA sample to the whole world. Fortunately for us, all 7 minutes and 46 glorious seconds of this interaction have been preserved on YouTube so that future generations may learn about the half-eaten sandwich:
After the show, Jenne brought half-eaten sandwiches from Steve Martin and Johnny Carson back to Illinois and put them in the freezer next to Nixon’s. As his story continued to spread, he received half-eaten sandwiches from Tiny Tim and legendary comedian Henny Youngman. This year, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the sandwich that started it all, Jenne collaborated with local author Scot England on a memoir, The Sandwich That Changed My Life! The 146-page book includes a rare color photo of the sandwich, taken without the plastic bag or Musselman’s Applesauce jar. Jenne told the Herald & Review that the sandwich was being kept safe so that it may be preserved for future historians to study.
“As long as I am living, that sandwich will be stored in my freezer in a container that is labeled, ‘Save, don’t throw away.’”