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Bobby Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa

Jimmy Hoffa at the Law Quad

After Bobby Kennedy castigated the Teamsters' leader, students snuck him in the window.

by Donnelly Wright Hadden

From the October, 2021 issue

After Bobby Kennedy castigated the Teamsters' leader, students snuck him in the window.

I met Jimmy Hoffa in April 1960 when he spoke to students at the University of Michigan Law School--to the dismay of the faculty. I was a second-year law student, and Hoffa was president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. It is an old union, formed when freight was transported in wagons hauled by teams of horses.

James Riddle Hoffa was a burly, compact man. He always had his hair cut short along the sides. His eyes peered at you intensely as if he could see what you were thinking. He did not laugh or smile that evening, nor have I ever seen or heard of him doing so.

Hoffa was all business. With his army of rough-and-tumble truckers, he held the power to paralyze commerce anywhere in North America. It was widely rumored that the Teamsters were corrupt and in league with organized crime.

Midway through my second year, the faculty invited Bobby Kennedy to speak to us. At the time, Kennedy's brother (and future president) Jack was a member of a Senate subcommittee investigating corruption and mobster connections in organized labor, and Bobby was its chief counsel.

Kennedy spoke in a large lecture theater in Hutchins Hall to more than 300 people. His topic was careers in public service, and he extolled the satisfaction of representing the people against bad guys who had money to hire teams of the best lawyers. He also castigated Hoffa as a crook, accused him of being a dangerous menace, and vowed to prosecute him to the "fullest extent of the law" and break up the union.

One of my roommates, Bernard "Buck" Bebeau, was so taken up with the speech he said he was going to run for prosecuting attorney of Ionia County. As we debated the presentation over a pitcher of beer at the Pretzel Bell, Ed Burch argued that we had not heard the other

...continued below...


side. Others agreed, and the Student Bar Association asked the faculty to invite Hoffa to rebut.

Dean E. Blythe Stason and the faculty flat-out refused. No way were they going to open their hallowed law school to that mobster.

The Student Bar Association then passed a resolution demanding Hoffa be invited to speak. The faculty had been pounding into us the Constitution, freedom of speech, the presumption of innocence, the right to confront one's accusers, and the merits of 'adverse-party litigation as the superior method of arriving at the truth. Now the students threw all of that back into their faces.

Calling themselves the "Odd Lot Investment Club," a group of them invited Hoffa to campus. They didn't expect he'd come, but he quickly agreed to speak on "Careers Representing the Working Man."

The talk was scheduled for the big lounge at the Lawyers Club on April 7, 1960. Located at the Law Quad's northwest corner, it was a huge parlor outfitted like an old English gentlemen's social club.

The room was packed when several big cars pulled up on South University. Two stocky men stepped out of two vehicles--I assumed they were bodyguards--and Hoffa and another man emerged from a third.

The administration had posted a man by the door of the lounge to bar Hoffa from entering--so the students opened one of the ornate stained-glass leaded windows. A couple of his attendants hoisted him up and Joe Jerkins and Ken Webb pulled him through.

It was ludicrous: one of the most powerful men in America crawling through a window in defiance of the establishment. The students cheered, and Jimmy Hoffa became the hero of the hour.

---

If Hoffa was impressed by the sanctimonious grandeur of the Law Quad or ruffled by his unceremonial entrance, he did not show it. The place was packed with students but only one associate professor attended; the only reporter was from Res Ipsa, the law students' newsletter.

Bodyguards stood next to Hoffa surveying the crowd. He spoke maybe fifteen minutes about a need for top-notch lawyers to represent labor because management always had the big obstructionist law firms on its side. He said that Bobby Kennedy was trying to strangle the union solely because it was so successful, trumping up bogus criminal accusations to undermine his leadership.

In a blunt, powerful voice, he disclaimed any corruption or dishonesty. He said he'd done manual labor since he was fourteen and joined the union while still a teenager working at a grocery store. He boasted that he lived in a modest home in a middle-class Detroit neighborhood and took no remuneration other than his 'member-approved salary. All the money in the pension fund was wisely invested.

During the question-and-answer session, he defended the investments in Las Vegas casinos alleged to be under Mafia control as sound business decisions. If the questions got too close to the Senate committee's investigation, he reminded us about the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. Those were the only times I saw a slight glint of a smile.

At the conclusion there was a reception line. Hoffa, flanked by the bodyguards, shook hands with each of us as we filed out. His handshake was firm.

I never met him again.

Later that year the Teamsters endorsed Richard Nixon for president, the only labor union to do so. John Kennedy won, Bobby became attorney general, and Hoffa was indicted and found not guilty in 1962. But in 1964 he was convicted of jury tampering and sentenced to eight years in a federal prison. In 1971 Nixon pardoned him.

On July 30, 1975, Hoffa had an appointment to have lunch at a restaurant in Bloomfield Township with Anthony Giacalone and Anthony Provenzano, both alleged Mafia kingpins. His hosts stood him up. He called his wife, reported the no-shows, and said he'd be home by 4 p.m. and grill some steaks for dinner. He was last seen in the restaurant parking lot, pacing back and forth by his car.

Hoffa never came home, and his disappearance was never solved. Seven years later, in accordance with Michigan law, he was declared legally dead.     (end of article)

 


 
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