The Governor Who Feared Mushrooms

Jan 20, 2018

I traveled Ohio on enough campaign trips with the late governor James A. Rhodes, one of the true characters of Ohio politics, to know that his tastes in food were eclectic to say the least.

On the campaign bus, it was sandwiches made from his favorite lunch meat, Lebanon bologna. At the Ohio State Fair, it was funnel cakes and a stop at the lunch wagon run by Der Dutchman, an Amish restaurant in Plain City, for an overstuffed roast beef sandwich.

And, when he would order the bus to pull over at nearly every Dairy Queen that he saw, it was banana splits as big as your head, which he would insist on buying for everyone in the place, whether they wanted it or not.

One thing you would not see him eat was mushrooms. Not in any way, shape nor form.

The man was deathly afraid that if he ate one, it could be poisonous and he would drop dead in his tracks.

I can actually say I saw this trait manifest itself in the dining room of the Lafayette hotel, a beautiful old hotel on the banks of the Ohio River in Marietta, founded in 1788 as the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory.

It was in 1986, in the middle of Rhodes' ill-advised and ill-fated try for a fifth term as governor, as he campaigned hopelessly against Democratic incumbent Richard Celeste.

By that time, he was 77 years old; his old campaign skills had diminished and Ohioans, who had elected him governor four times in the 1960s and 1970s, had seemed to grow tired of Rhodes and his antics.

Nonetheless, he soldiered on.

In September, he went on a day-long campaign tour that went from Columbus to Cincinnati to Portsmouth to Marietta and back to Columbus. A long day for the half dozen or so relatively young reporters who went along, much less a 77-year-old candidate.

Around 8 p.m., after the last campaign event in Marietta, Rhodes and about a dozen reporters and campaign aides went to the Gun Room, the Lafayette's main dining room, for a good meal.

Rhodes had steak on the mind.

I ended up sitting next to him at a big round table.

He announced to the reporters that he was going to buy everybody dinner.

We reporters objected, telling him we couldn't accept gifts from someone we were covering. A serious breach of journalism ethics.

Rhodes was old-school; he didn't get it.

He bellowed at us: What's the matter with you? If I thought I could buy you off for $20, I'd offer $10!

Nonetheless, all of the reporters asked for and received separate checks.

Rhodes gave a quick glance at the menu and his eyes stopped at three words: New York Strip.

The waiter took his order; I believe I ordered New York Strip too, if I recall correctly.

After a while, the meals arrived.

Rhodes took one look at his steak and made a face like someone had emitted a foul odor. It was smothered in sautéed mushrooms.

I can't eat these mushrooms! Whose idea was it to put mushrooms on my steak!

I tried to explain to him that it said right on the menu that it came smothered in mushrooms and that he could have asked them to skip that part.

He looks at me like I had two heads.

You want these things? Here, you can have them.

And he proceeded to scrape all of his mushrooms from his plate on to mine – which was fine by me, I loved sautéed mushrooms.

Rhodes then told me the story of his growing up poor in tiny Coalton, Ohio in Jackson County in southeast Ohio, living in a converted chicken shack.

After we would have a big rain, everybody in town would go up into the hills with baskets and gather up all the mushrooms.

Then, we'd have a big dinner at the church.

After that, we' d have a big funeral.

But you go ahead and eat those mushrooms, if you want.

I did, with gusto.

And, all the time, I could tell he was watching me, waiting for me to keel over from mushroom poisoning.

Somehow, I survived.