Remembrance: Senator Percy and the birth of Monitor Breakfasts

Former US Senator Charles Percy, who died Saturday, played a key role in starting the 35-year tradition of the Monitor-hosted breakfasts for reporters.

By , staff writer

Former US Senator Charles Percy had a long and accomplished career in business and public service. Mr. Percy, who died Saturday, also played a key role in starting the 45-year tradition of the Monitor-hosted breakfasts for reporters.

While he was running for the Senate from Illinois in 1966, Mr. Percy had dinner with the Monitor’s then assistant Washington bureau chief, Godfrey Sperling, Jr. It was at that dinner, the nascent idea of the Monitor breakfast was born.

"Chuck" Percy told "Budge" Sperling he would be interested in meeting with Washington reporters who were covering his Senate campaign. So Mr. Sperling arranged a lunch for 10 reporters in the President’s Room of the National Press Club around the corner from the White House on February 8, 1966. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph, as well as the preceding one, incorrectly described the point in Percy's political career when the idea emerged for him to meet with a group of reporters.]

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The Monitor gatherings have continued ever since.

Percy and Sperling first met when Sperling was assigned to the paper’s Chicago bureau and wrote a story, “Mr. Percy Goes to Washington,” about Percy’s role advising President Dwight Eisenhower on trade issues.

Percy became nationally known before his political career when he was named president of Bell & Howell Company at age 29 and oversaw its rapid growth.

In an interview Monday, Sperling recalled that Percy “made all kinds of news” at the lunch. At the time, Percy was “one of the hottest prospects anywhere for president,” Sperling said, and “made headlines talking about his aspirations to be president.”

Sperling’s newspaper colleagues found the event useful and suggested he hold more gatherings where reporters could talk to important public figures in a relaxed setting. "I didn't know what I had," Sperling said.

The next session was in June 1967 and featured Idaho Gov. Robert Smylie, then chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association. The Press Club did not have a room available for lunch, so the session with Smylie was a breakfast and reporters ended up liking that time slot better. Most of the Monitor-hosted gatherings since then – more than 3,700 hundred of them – have been breakfasts.

Percy was the guest at the fifth breakfast on May 17, 1967, and continued to be a frequent visitor through his years in the Senate, speaking at 14 gatherings in all. After Percy lost a reelection bid in 1984, he and Sperling stayed in touch, sharing in their Illinois roots, the Christian Science religion, and a keen interest in politics.

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