Those who gathered for the dedication of the Alferd Packer Memorial Grill in the Department of Agriculture thought they were witnessing homage to an enterprising pioneer. Little did they realize they were part of a minor temper tantrum by a government official who wanted to prove a point.
In 1977 Robert Bergland had just been installed as Secretary of Agriculture. As many top officials in Washington, D.C. soon learn, it is not a simple thing to get even seemingly-simple things accomplished. Bergland immediately started receiving complaints about the food services contractor that supplied the meals in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) headquarters. Knowing that one of the best ways to improve the morale of employees is through the stomach, Bergland gave orders to replace the contractor.
No sooner did he give the orders than he found out the limits of his power. The General Services Administration (GSA) would not consent to the change in contractors. Bergland tried repeatedly to make the switch, only to find his efforts hindered at every turn.
There was one thing where his authority was unquestioned. He definitely had the power to decide how to name the rooms in the Department of Agriculture’s building. When a newly-renovated employee cafeteria became ready for dedication in August of that year, Bergland called a press conference to cover the event.
Unveiling a brass plaque, Bergland christened the “Alferd Packer Memorial Grill.” He told the assembled press that Alferd Packer “exemplifies the spirit and the fare of this Agricultural Department cafeteria.”
Why Alferd Packer, and what did he have to do with any of this? Packer (1842-1907) was a Colorado gold prospector. It was not his exploits as a prospector that earned him infamy, however. Packer is more famously remembered as the “Colorado Cannibal,” who was convicted and imprisoned for killing and eating several men in 1847.
Once the media figured out the story behind Alferd Packer, Bergland’s tongue-in-cheek dedication of the cafeteria drew attention to the complications of Washington bureaucracy. The public spectacle shamed the GSA to permit Bergland to end the contractor for the food services contractor.
Once Bergland’s goal was achieved, he removed the plaque from the Agriculture Department’s cafeteria. He donated it to Stan Weston, an Agriculture employee who had suggested the whole idea. Later, Weston gave the plaque to a journalist who had Weston’s name added. The plaque now adorns a wall of National Press Club. If you ever eat there, you can see the plaque and also order an Alferd Packer certified angus beef burger from the menu.
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