MADISON — In 1915, Harvey Higley graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Just two years later, the life of this Marinette County native changed forever when the United States declared war on Germany, entering into World War I.
Higley, a chemical engineer, walked out of private employment and entered service in the greatest conflict the world had known. He served in France, and for the rest of his life, one of his greatest concerns was caring for his fellow veterans. He served as secretary of veterans affairs under President Dwight Eisenhower, and among Higley’s lasting achievements was establishing Veterans Day as a national holiday.
Higley believed that the nation owed its veterans for their sacrifice. “The contract between the government and those men — it has to be paid,” he said. Higley came home to Wisconsin after the Great War and worked at Ansul Chemical, a Marinette firm that manufactures fire extinguishers. He served as the company’s president from 1938 to 1948.
A lifelong Republican, Higley rose to national prominence with Eisenhower’s election as president in 1952. From 1953 to 1957, Higley served in the cabinet, guiding policy during the period when the country had more veterans than at any other time: after both World War II and the Korean War. Higley considered it his mission to protect the rights of those veterans — for their good and for the good of America. He was especially determined to see that they received benefits in education. “The GI Bill has been of inestimable value to a very large number of veterans,” he said, “and this country has gained materially due to the GI Bill of Rights.”
Eisenhower was impressed with Higley’s efforts to stand up for the rights of African American veterans. “I greatly appreciate your report on the success of the Veterans Administration program to eliminate segregation in all VA hospitals and domiciliaries,” he wrote to Higley. “You and all who cooperated with you in this program are to be highly commended.”
In 1954, Higley helped lead the charge to create a national holiday to honor all veterans. Working with Congressman Ed Rees of Kansas, he worked to pass a bill that changed the name of Armistice Day — which celebrated the end of World War I — to Veterans Day, a “day dedicated to the cause of world peace.”