200 Years of Illinois: The half-eaten bison sandwich of Richard M. Nixon

September 22 is an auspicious date in Illinois history. As this post recounts, boxing history took place on the date. Willie Nelson took time out from his 1985 to team with John Mellencamp and Neil Young on the first Farm Aid extravaganza at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. And, in the bitter presidential campaign of 1960, Richard M. Nixon drew worldwide attention to tiny Sullivan, Illinois by showing up for lunch.

Sullivan’s town fathers had invited Nixon and opponent John F. Kennedy to a debate. To everyone’s surprise, Nixon accepted. When JFK failed to show, Nixon settled for lunch and giving a speech at a town park. Nixon’s sandwich was buffalo meat courtesy of a bison herd kept outside of town. Standing guard over Nixon’s picnic table: Boy Scout and local teen Steve Jenne.

Nixon ate half the sandwich before adjourning to the park’s baseball diamond to speechify. A crowd of 17,000 followed. Jenne stayed behind.“Being the good Boy Scout that I was,” he said, “I stood there and guarded that sandwich.” It soon became clear Nixon was not a member of the Clean Plate Club. Jenne, in a stroke of genius, packed up the then-vice president’s lunch leftovers and kept the sandwich in his freezer. For decades.

Twenty-eight years later, a newspaper’s story about the sandwich went nationwide. Jenne and the bison meat ended up on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. (Johnny gave Jenne a half-eaten barbeque sandwich to take home.) Later, Jenne took the meat item west again to appear on a game show. Media continued to interview him about the Nixon culinary encounter well into the 2000s. A Journal Gazette and Times-Courier article noted that he had by then wrapped it in new cellophane, though it remained in the same applesauce jar that had housed the sandwich since 1960.