Nixon's partially eaten sandwich still makes Sullivan famous
Steve Jenne talks to a class at Sullivan High School on Tuesday about the sandwich he has from which the late President Richard Nixon ate. Kevin Kilhoffer/Staff Photographer

SULLIVAN — Steve Jenne’s half-eaten sandwich is a story that seems like it will never go away.

Of course, it is no ordinary sandwich.

In 1960, Jenne was a 14-year-old boy given a big responsibility.

The Sullivan High School student was a member of the Boy Scouts, a group given the tremendous task of guarding the picnic table of then-Vice President Richard Nixon as he ate lunch in Wyman Park.

The mere fact that a vice president and presidential candidate would come to a town the size of Sullivan seemed impossible to Jenne.

The local politicians invited both presidential candidates, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, to come to Sullivan for a debate. Much to Jenne’s surprise, Nixon accepted the offer.

“What chance did Sullivan have of getting Kennedy and Nixon here?” Wyman said.

In honor of the arrival of a distinguished politician to Sullivan, some bison were bred just outside of town so buffalo sandwiches could be served when Nixon got to town, Jenne said. On the day of Nixon’s arrival, Sept. 22, 1960, Sullivan was overwhelmed by 17,000 people who came to see Nixon speak at Wyman park.

Prior to his speech in Wyman Park’s baseball diamond, Nixon sat down at a picnic bench to eat his buffalo sandwich, with Jenne standing directly behind him, serving in his role of lunch-time guard. Nixon ate about half of his sandwich and made comments about how much he liked it before getting up to give his speech.

When Nixon went to the ball diamond to speak, the entire crowd followed after him, except Jenne.

“Being the good Boy Scout that I was, I stood there and guarded that sandwich,” Jenne said.

As he prepared to leave a little later, Jenne just picked up the paper plate Nixon’s sandwich was served on, with the sandwich still on it, and brought it with him to his house on East Jackson Street. Jenne’s mother agreed to store the sandwich in the freezer, first wrapping the sandwich in cellophane and putting it in an applesauce jar.

“He was our vice president. I thought it might be worth saving,” Jenne said.

Now, 47 years later, Jenne still has the sandwich and he knows for a fact it was worth saving.

Jenne was a guest speaker Tuesday at American history classes at Sullivan High School, a school he has not returned to since he graduated in 1964. Bringing along the paper plate on which the sandwich sat, along with a tote bag full of newspaper articles written about him over the years, Jenne got a chance to tell a new generation of Sullivan High Schoolers his sandwich story.

The sandwich itself did not make it with Jenne from Springfield, as he said its last two trips to California have taken a toll on it.

After hearing Jenne speak, junior Caitlin Howard was amazed Jenne was able to get so close to Nixon, especially now that security around politicians can be so tight.

“The fact that a Boy Scout troop was protecting the president — that is so cool,” Howard said.

Before American history student teacher Carol Scott began talking to the class about Jenne’s sandwich, the most junior Gunnar Brown knew about Nixon’s trip to Sullivan was from the marker in Wyman Park that commemorates his visit there. Brown happened to trip over the marker while at the soccer field one day.

For all of the promotion that is given to President Abraham Lincoln’s travels in Central Illinois, junior Alyssa Maxedon said she was surprised she hasn’t heard much about Nixon’s visit to the small town of Sullivan.

Although he couldn’t possibly imagine it at 14 years old, Jenne has received a considerable amount of attention over the years due to the half-eaten buffalo sandwich. Each time Jenne thinks he will no longer get requests for interviews or television appearances, his phone will start ringing again.

“This is a story that just won’t die,” Jenne said.

Jenne had a few stories written about him and the sandwich in his early years of ownership, then, in 1988, a local newspaper reporter came across an old story about the sandwich and called him up to see if he still had it. He did, and the story made the news wire services.

Soon, he was getting phone calls from radio stations across the country to be interviewed on the air. That December, he got a call from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to come on the show. The one stipulation was that the sandwich had to come with Jenne.

Since dry ice is not allowed on an airplane, Jenne had to keep the aging sandwich in a cooler as his carry-on luggage on the airplane. Such an adventure is hard on the sandwich, Jenne said, since it cannot stay frozen.

Jenne’s sandwich story just kept going from there; he kept getting calls from radio stations and newspapers; he was contacted when Nixon died and when Carson died for some perspective on their deaths. More recently, he was featured in the book “Weird Illinois” by Troy Taylor of Decatur.

Jenne and the sandwich took one more trip to California, where he competed on the Game Show Network’s game show “I Have a Secret,” where he stumped the judges.

The American history students were intrigued as to why Jenne has continued to keep the Nixon sandwich for so many years. The answer is simple: It continues to be fun, Jenne said.

He has gotten two free trips to California because of the sandwich, where he got to meet celebrities like Steve Martin. It also makes for an interesting conversation piece.

“I never get tired of it — it’s all fun,” Jenne said.

Now, 47 years since receiving the sandwich, Jenne has wrapped it in new cellophane, but keeps it in the same applesauce jar from his mother. The applesauce jar now sits in a zip top bag, which didn’t exist in 1960.

The sandwich lives in a corner of Jenne’s freezer along with the rest of his food, since Jenne said it does not take up too much space.

Jenne has been offered money for the sandwich on a few occasions, but no offers he has taken seriously. It is impossible to know how much the sandwich might be worth, but Jenne said he is still having too much fun to sell the sandwich.

“It is really a fun path it has taken me on,” Jenne said.

Maybe some years down the road, Jenne said he will consider donating it to a museum — only if the museum has refrigeration capacities.

Contact Amber Williams at awilliams@jg-tc.com or 238-6858.

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