Blair a GOP stronghold

The Sunday Column

Blair County and its surrounding area may qualify as the most reliably safe Republi­can Party stronghold in Pennsylvania.

During the past 100 years, only one Democrat, Don Hilary Gingery, was ever elected to represent the area in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was born in 1884 and grew up in Clearfield, later attending Mercersburg Academy.

Interestingly, while representing us between 1935 and 1939, he was a member of the official delegation attending the inauguration of President Manuel Quezon of the Philippines in 1935.

Gingery’s brief Democrat tenure was surrounded by familiar local political names, all Republicans.

Gingery’s predecessor was J. Banks Kurtz, who was born in Juniata County and graduated from Dickinson School of Law in 1893. He was admitted to the bar and commenced practice in Altoona, after which he served as Blair County district attorney from 1905-12. He was in Washington from 1923-35, after which he became the chief legal officer for Altoona. Kurtz died in 1960, age 92, and is buried in Alto-Reste Cemetery.

Gingery’s successor was another Republican, James E. Van Zandt, who was born in Altoona and was an enlisted sailor in World War I.

In 1933, he toured the country to recruit members to the newly formed VFW, which he commanded from 1934-36. Van Zandt served split terms in congress from 1939-43 and later from 1948-63. During the interval, he was an officer in the Navy during WWII. The VA hospital in Altoona is named for Van Zandt. More about him later.

After Van Zandt resigned his seat and went off to war, his place was taken by the GOP’s D. Emmert Brumbaugh, who was born in Henrietta, outside Martinsburg, but made his reputation in local, state and national banking matters in Claysburg.

He was elected to Van Zandt’s unexpired term and then one term in his own right. Brumbaugh stepped aside in 1947 so that Van Zandt could reclaim the seat. Brumbaugh is the only person from Morrisons Cove to hold national office.

Bud Shuster and his son, Bill, are Republicans who have represented our area in Congress since 1973. For many of those 45 years, they have been unopposed for office or have gained the nominations of both parties at election time. Bill is retiring, so the seat is now up for grabs.

Eight Republicans and one Democrat filed paperwork to be on the ballot.

Now, back to James Van Zandt.

In 1953, I was a rookie reporter for the Mirror when I eavesdropped on a newsroom conversation between City Editor Ed Benney and copy editor Charlie Rothrock. It was the day after Altoona’s Fourth of July parade down 11th Avenue, where Van Zandt and Benney were guests in the mayor’s reviewing stand. A brief light rain commenced shortly after the units began marching past.

In Benney’s telling, black streaks began oozing down Van Zandt’s cheeks. It seems the congressman used dye to cover his graying hair, and it was running. They had a good laugh.

Country bumpkin me, I wondered what was so funny.

James Wentz writes a monthly column for the Mirror.

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