Politics & Government

Centre College alums hope 'Dead Fred' holds his rightful place at VP debate

Centre College graduate TJ Brown, right, held Dead Fred in 2003 with a guide atop Chimborazo, the tallest mountain in Ecuador.
Centre College graduate TJ Brown, right, held Dead Fred in 2003 with a guide atop Chimborazo, the tallest mountain in Ecuador.

FRANKFORT — Centre College's Norton Center will host the nation's elite media and some of the biggest names in politics Thursday night.

But for many Centre College alumni and Danville natives, one name matters more than others — "Dead Fred."

The portrait of Fred "Dead Fred" Vinson, a former chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, will apparently have a bird's-eye view of the vice presidential debate, a place befitting a man who looms large over the liberal arts college.

Vinson's oil portrait, affectionately dubbed "Dead Fred," has been toted to major Centre College events for nearly 60 years. Dead Fred attended Centre College's first vice presidential debate in 2000.

"He's been at every important event at Centre," said Stephen Dexter, a 2004 graduate who is now an attorney in Danville.

To not have Dead Fred at Thursday's debate would be unthinkable, Centre College alumni said this week.

"If he's not going, I'm going to start making phone calls now," said TJ Brown, a Centre College graduate who took Dead Fred to Europe and South America in 2003.

Clarence Wyatt, debate co-chairman and professor of history at Centre College, said Thursday it appears that Vinson's portrait would be back to watch the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan.

"Plans are under way for Chief Justice Vinson to attend the debate again," Wyatt said. It's not clear where Vinson's portrait will be hung or if he will be placed in the same alcove that he viewed the 2000 debate between Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney.

Dead Fred is as much a part of the school's history as its buildings and faculty. Vinson, who graduated from Centre in 1909, served in all three branches of government. He was elected to Congress and was later appointed by President Harry Truman as secretary of the treasury. Truman later appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Vinson, an avid sports fan, loved Centre College and apparently wanted to attend all its games, the legend goes. After he died in 1953, his fraternity brothers at Phi Delta Theta started to carry his portrait to all football games, other sporting events and other major campus events.

Dexter grew up in Danville, his father is a Centre graduate, and he remembers seeing Dead Fred at games when he was a child.

"Everyone knows him," Dexter said.

"He goes to all football games and most basketball games," said Brown, who served as president of Phi Delta Theta in 2002-03. "I think when I was there, he also really liked baseball."

In 2000, the Phi Delts decided it was only fitting that Vinson should attend that year's debate. With little fanfare, the Phi Delts donned suits and hung Vinson's portrait in an alcove in Norton Center a few days before the debate.

"We thought that if Fred had been alive, he would have definitely wanted to see it," Dexter said.

Dead Fred's exploits extend beyond Centre's campus.

After Brown graduated in 2003, he went on a two-month tour of Europe. He was meeting friends at various points in his journey but there were times when he would be navigating Europe alone. A staff member at Centre College suggested Dead Fred as an excellent traveling companion. Brown agreed. The official portrait cannot leave Centre College's campus, so the staffer made a copy for Brown to take with him. He carried it in a poster tube throughout Europe.

Brown and Dead Fred had a great summer.

"We ran with the bulls, we hit the Vatican, we went to Versailles," Brown remembers. At each cultural landmark, he would unfurl Dead Fred and have people take pictures. He returned from Europe, got a job, scraped together some money and then went to South America to climb mountains. Dead Fred, of course, went with him.

"It was very difficult to explain to this 25-year-old mountain guide on the top of this mountain why we were taking a photo with this judge," Brown said.

Wyatt said he wasn't privy to all of the details of how Vinson's oil portrait was going to be placed in Norton Center. There were concerns among some alumni last week that the U.S. Secret Service — which will be in charge of security for the debate hall — might have problems with Vinson.

His Phi Delta Theta fraternity brothers, however, vouch for him.

"It's a portrait, what's he going to do?" Dexter said.

"He's never caused any problems," Brown said. "Now, the people that carry him.... Well, they aren't going to be there. But Fred? He's very well-behaved."

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