One of Centre College’s most prestigious — and long deceased — alumni was paraded through campus Tuesday all the way to a prime spot at the Norton Center for the Arts, the site for Thursday’s vice-presidential debate.
“The chief justice will ultimately make his way onto one of the porticos (above one of the doorways) and will be able to view the debate from there,” Centre Communications Director Michael Strysick told a small gathering of media members.
Make way for “Dead Fred.”
What may appear at first blush like a rather macabre joke is actually the loving pet name for a painting of former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson, a 1909 graduate of Centre College.
Over the decades the portrait of Vinson, sternly looking on in his judicial robes, has become a popular totem for the members of his fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, a group of whom ushered it into the Norton Center on Tuesday.
According to the school’s website, Vinson was a three-sport athlete who often attended games with his friends after graduation. Sometime after his death in the 1950s, the painting began making appearances at sporting events as a nod to Vinson’s fondness for the school and its athletic teams.
“Phi Delts have taken him around the world,” said Clarence Wyatt, a Centre history professor and co-chairman of the vice-presidential debate steering committee.
“It’s one of those interesting, unique things about the college. Everyone knows and talks about the painting and expects to see him on important occasions.”
Wyatt, a Centre alum, recalled the painting as a regular at games and other occasions around campus during the mid-1970s.
He said Vinson, who also received his law degree from what was then the Centre College Law School in 1911, had an important role on the national stage at a critical time in U.S. history.
“In addition to being chief justice, he served as Secretary of the Treasury but also headed the Office of War Production during World War II,” Wyatt said. “He was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s most trusted advisors.
Senior Jordan Gay grew up in Danville, and his father, Jamey, is the longtime head athletic trainer at the school, but he only became familiar with Vinson’s spot in Centre lore after joining the Phi Delts.
As a kicker for the Centre football team, Gay has been under his fraternity brother’s watchful gaze, although he doesn’t know whether Vinson has influenced his accuracy.
Gay said he and his fellow fraternity members are proud to identify with such a prestigious, albeit deceased, alumni.
“It is kind of what we are known for,” Gay said. “We’re the guys with Dead Fred.”