Bygone Muncie: Why Oct. 7 was once proclaimed Peggy Goldwater Day in Muncie

·6 min read

Did you know that Oct. 7 is Peggy Goldwater Day in Muncie? The honor was bestowed in 1964 by then-mayor John V. Hampton. A Muncie native, Goldwater was in her hometown that day campaigning on behalf of her husband, Barry Goldwater; an Arizona senator and the Republican candidate for president of the United States.

Sen. Goldwater’s campaign was in trouble that October. He trailed President Lyndon Johnson in every poll by wide margins. The ‘64 election season was revealing the titanic political shifts underway in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Many Republican candidates seeking and defending offices that year shared Goldwater’s plight.

In Indiana, a Republican state senator named D. Russell Bontrager was challenging Vance Hartke’s seat in the United States Senate. Like Goldwater, Bontrager was behind his incumbent Democratic opponent in polling. Nevertheless, the outcome was uncertain in the historically red Hoosier state.

On Oct. 7, as Sen. Goldwater campaigned his way through New Jersey, Peggy and the couple’s four adult children stopped in Muncie to stump for Goldwater and Bontrager. But Peggy Goldwater was no stranger here and her 1964 October visit was treated by many as a homecoming.

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Margaret “Peggy” Johnson was born in the Magic City on July 8, 1909. The Muncie Morning Star marked the birth simply in a daily City Statistics column: “Mr. and Mrs. Ray Johnson, East Washington street, a daughter.”

Barry and Peggy Goldwater’s 1934 wedding photo, taken at the Johnson home on Washington Street. The photo is from the Personal and Political Papers of Senator Barry M. Goldwater, Greater Arizona Collection.
Barry and Peggy Goldwater’s 1934 wedding photo, taken at the Johnson home on Washington Street. The photo is from the Personal and Political Papers of Senator Barry M. Goldwater, Greater Arizona Collection.

The announcement’s modesty belied the social stature of Peggy’s parents, Anna (née Davis) and Ray Prescott Johnson; leading members of one of Muncie’s wealthiest families. The clan’s patriarch was Peggy’s grandfather, Abbott L. Johnson. The industrialist had amassed a fortune in business and real estate during the gas boom. He also co-founded Warner Gear Company in 1901 with Harry and Tom Warner. Warner Gear merged with Borg and Beck to become Borg-Warner in 1928.

The company produced automobile drivetrain components at Muncie facilities until 2008. Many Johnsons and Davises (Anna’s family) served in leadership roles at Warner Gear, including Peggy’s father, her brother Ray Prescott Jr., and her maternal uncle, Charles Davis. Her mother Anna was a talented pianist, who, according to the Evening Press, “frequently appeared in recitals in Chicago and elsewhere.”

Peggy Johnson received a private education, first at Elmhurst School for Girls in Connersville and later, the Mount Vernon Seminary and Junior College in Washington D.C., where she graduated in 1929. She then studied fashion design at Grand Central School of Art in New York City. Peggy returned to Muncie after graduation and began working at Margo’s Dress Shop in the Delaware Hotel.

When Ray Prescott Sr. became stricken with tuberculosis, the Johnsons moved to Arizona, where the dry warm air eased his symptoms. During one holiday season, Peggy and her mother went shopping and met Barry Goldwater, a manager at Goldwater’s Department Store in Phoenix. Peggy and Barry hit off romantically, but after Ray Prescott Sr. died in 1932, the Johnsons returned to Muncie.

The couple maintained their courtship at a distance. According to The Muncie Star, “among the legends growing up about the Johnson-Goldwater romance is that Mrs. Goldwater accepted the senator’s proposal for marriage in a telephone booth at the Roberts Hotel” during a New Years Eve party in 1933. The future candidate for president had proposed over the phone from Arizona. Perhaps throwing romance to the wind, Goldwater mailed the engagement ring to Muncie.

On Sept. 22, 1934, the couple wed at Grace Episcopal Church on East Adams Street. The Goldwaters settled in Phoenix and would go on to have four children: Barry Jr., Joanne, Michael, and Peggy. Barry Sr. entered politics after serving as a pilot in the United States Army Air Force during the Second World War. He became an Arizona senator 1953-1965 and again 1969-1987.

Peggy Goldwater was active in Phoenix, serving on several boards, including St. Luke’s Tuberculosis Sanitorium. After meeting Margaret Sanger in 1937, Goldwater and several other prominent Phoenix women opened the Mother’s Health Clinic to provide birth control and prenatal care. Goldwater served as president of the board until the clinic merged with Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona in 1942. She remained an active Planned Parenthood volunteer and fundraiser for many years.

She visited Muncie often to see friends and family, including her cousin Isabel (née Davis) Drumm. When Peggy’s mother died in November of 1963, the whole Goldwater family returned to Muncie for the funeral, which was held the day after Kennedy’s assassination. When her brother died the following March, Peggy returned again to entomb Ray Jr. in the Johnson Mausoleum at Beech Grove Cemetery.

But her trip to Muncie on Oct. 7, 1964, was much less grim. Around 11:30 a.m., a twin-engine Martin 404 airplane landed at Muncie’s airport. Known then as Johnson Field, the regional airport was named in honor of Peggy’s cousin, Abbott L. Johnson II; an aviator and the first Munsonian to obtain a pilot’s license.

The Evening Press reported that the Royerton High School band played music as 1,000 Munsonians “welcomed Peggy Johnson Goldwater back to her home town of Muncie this morning at Johnson Field.” She was also greeted by her children, who had arrived in Muncie earlier that day. On the tarmac, Mayor Hampton presented Goldwater with a golden key to the city and declared Oct. 7 “Peggy Goldwater Day.” He told the crowd, “I urge every citizen of Muncie, regardless of political affiliation, to take part in welcoming this great lady to our city and in honoring her for the position she holds as a candidate for the next First Lady of our land.”

Goldwater responded, “I can’t tell you how happy and thrilled I am to be back.”

Under police escort, the Goldwaters first went to Peggy’s cousin Isabel’s house for lunch. This was followed by a trip to Beech Grove (to pay respects) and then a quick visit to the old Johnson home at 615 E. Washington St.

That afternoon, the Goldwaters assembled at Ball State’s Student Center for a press conference, where 75 reporters and photographers peppered the family with questions. Peggy deferred all campaign queries to Barry Jr., but happily answered questions about Muncie and her family.

A reception followed the presser, followed by dinner at Ed Ball’s house. At 7:30 p.m., the Goldwaters attended a campaign rally for Bontrager at Southside High School. The Muncie Star reported that a “demonstrative crowd of about 1,500 cheered Peggy Goldwater and her two sons and daughters.” The Goldwaters left the next morning. Peggy would never return to Muncie.

Sen. Goldwater would go on to lose the election that November, as did Bontrager. In the years that followed, Peggy’s visit to Muncie was remembered often in the local papers. She died on Dec. 11, 1985, at the age of 76 due to complications in surgery. At her memorial service, the Rev. Joseph Harte told the mourners, “Peggy’s genius was to bring the proper mix to the ingredients of life. Her genius was in the strong bonds of her family.” Bonds, of course, that stretched back all the way to the Magic City.

Chris Flook is a board member of the Delaware County Historical Society and is the author of "Lost Towns of Delaware County, Indiana" and "Native Americans of East-Central Indiana." For more information about the Delaware County Historical Society, visit

This article originally appeared on Muncie Star Press: Bygone Muncie: Why Oct. 7 is officially Peggy Goldwater Day in Muncie