September 13, 2012
Centennial Sal’s American journey
1989 was the 100th anniversary of Montana’s statehood. Teachers were instructing students about the history and importance of statehood and the reasons for the centennial celebrations. One teacher and her students developed what turned out to be the most interesting and far-reaching of all centennial projects. A Helena teacher, Mrs. Sandy Heffelfinger, and students at Jefferson School decided to create a life-size female figure about the size of a fifth grader out of plywood. They named her “Centennial Sal.”
Mrs. Heffelfinger called me to explain the project and asked my help. She told me the plan was to have Sal “hitchhike” from Helena to my Congressional office in Washington, D.C.
The students took Sal to a rest stop in Helena and simply left her there. Sal was carrying instructions explaining she was headed for Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and was looking for a ride east. She traveled through perhaps a dozen states during the next several weeks. The Jefferson School students were able to track Sal’s journey because they had made her a pocket in which they had placed return address postcards so travelers could let the students know where Sal had been picked up and dropped off.
The hitchhiking tour took her 3,058 miles, from rest stops to restaurants, back roads to four lanes. A few times we thought she was lost or hurt but relief would come with that next postcard telling the students where Sal was and assuring them she was safe and still smiling.
Weeks later a long-haul trucker called me. He had Sal with him in Virginia. “If you give me directions to your office in D.C., I’ll bring Sal by.” She arrived...looking good; her beautiful black pigtails in place, her red blouse and blue pants still fairly clean, her blue eyes and smile lit up my office.
Sal stood in my reception area for a week or so, greeting visitors - many of them Montanans delighted to meet Sal and know her journey was successful. I introduced thirty members of Congress to Sal, including the Speaker of the House Jim Wright of Texas.
Sandy Heffelfinger and I decided that Sal should return home to her friends at Helena’s Jefferson School. It was Sal’s first plane trip and I wanted her to fly first class so I put her in the first class overhead luggage compartment and I sat in the back of the plane.
It was announced to the students at Jefferson School that they would have an all-school assembly. Sal and I watched from the wings as the students, filled with expectations, took their seats. Mrs. Heffelfinger introduced us as “Please welcome our Congressman Pat Williams and a special guest.” Centennial Sal and I walked/rolled onto the stage.
I have been attending events for sixty years, but I have never witnessed a reception as joyous and emotional as those students gave to Sal. The cheering, accompanied by tears and sobs, tore the roof off. To this day it remains the happiest and most genuine outburst of cheering and applause any of us there will ever witness. The Independent Record wrote, “The student body erupted with a deafening roar.” Sal had made it.
The aftermath of Sal’s trip and homecoming was, of course, better-educated students. Sandy and the other teachers used Sal’s trip to teach geography, social studies, civics, and government. And, perhaps, most important, the children learned to trust the kindness of strangers and with it believe in themselves.
Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his
retirement, he returned to Montana and taught at The University of Montana.