NORTON, Kan. — The hosts served coffee and cookies beneath the rows of portraits. A curator delivered supportive, if not quite laudatory, remarks, and residents of this remote prairie town filled the small gallery with applause. Finally, the staff unveiled a formal photograph of a stoic Mitt Romney.
The 2012 Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts governor was not present for Norton’s quadrennial rite. He was not even notified.
But as Romney’s portrait was officially hung in what is believed to be the nation’s only museum of presidential losers, community enthusiasm was undiminished.
“With every winner, there’s somebody they had to beat,” said Lee Ann Shearer, the curator of the exhibit called “They Also Ran,” which has been housed above First State Bank in Norton for 48 years. “These are those guys.”
The candidates, many long forgotten by the rest of the country, are remembered without irony or snarkiness but with sincerity in this town in rural middle America, which itself could easily be forgotten.
A local banker established the gallery in 1965 after being inspired by the story of Horace Greeley, one of the few presidential candidates — winning or losing — to ever set foot in Norton. The exhibit starts with Thomas Jefferson, who lost the nation’s third presidential race in 1796 (George Washington ran virtually unopposed in the nation’s first two presidential elections). Now the row of portraits ends with the homage to Romney, the 60th honoree.
“Willard Mitt Romney, to the wall,” declared Shearer, with a corsage pinned to her blouse, as she hung Romney’s portrait on Jan. 22, a moment captured by a news crew that drove down from a local TV station in Nebraska. “I will read now his biography.”
Romney — his image downloaded from the Internet — graced a spot near other recent losers: John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, and Jimmy Carter. The frame for Gerald Ford, who was known for his clumsiness, used to routinely fall off the wall at the gallery (it has since been moved, and secured).
“These guys deserve some recognition for having the guts to run for president. The president gets his due, and these guys were just left by the wayside,” said Roberta Ryan, a city councilor. “This is a gentle reminder that these fellas are part of our history. And a lot of them probably worked harder than the vice presidents.”
The evidence, as measured by foot and web traffic, suggests few people actually share Norton’s concern for the White House wannabes. It is one thing to champion underdogs — but the defeated? The gallery gets just a few hundred visitors annually. The world’s largest ball of twine is located 90 miles away, and it gets as many visitors in an average week as “They Also Ran” gets in a good year.
The gallery has a Facebook page. Only 57 people “like” it. It has a Twitter feed with just 191 followers. Still, it has received visitors from Nova Scotia, Germany, and Australia. One man from Argentina has been at least three times. (One visiting couple hailed from Wasilla, Alaska, but it was not the Palins.)
Two roommates from Dartmouth College spent nearly four days one summer driving across the country, with the gallery as their destination.
“When we told people we were doing this, people said, ‘Where? Why?’ ” said Katie Ellis, a 28-year-old history buff who grew up in Sanbornton, N.H. “It was a little odd. But it made for a good story.”
Ellis’s husband worked on Romney’s first presidential campaign, and she recently suggested they make a return pilgrimage to see his picture.
“He doesn’t really have an interest,” she said.
While the Smithsonian honors presidential winners in the National Portrait Gallery, a spokeswoman said the losers have no place in their esteemed museums.
“We do not have such photos at Smithsonian,” said Linda St. Thomas, adding that she had not heard of the gallery in rural Kansas. “Sounds like a bad idea if you are a losing candidate.”
Norton is the kind of town where people leave their unlocked cars running in the parking lot while they go into the store. The community’s first baby of 2013 was not born until Jan. 23 — and then it made front-page news. It is a one-stoplight town, and the next stoplight, heading west on two-lane Route 36, is more than 240 miles away in Colorado.
The town, which has adopted the slogan, “Where the Best Begins,’’ is near Prairie Dog State Park and a reservoir known for its bass fishing. But there are few attractions for outsiders, other than its quirky political museum.
“It puts us on the map,” said Tara Vance, director of the local Chamber of Commerce. “Even if it’s every four years. And it’s a loser.”
The seeds for the tribute were planted in 1965, when banker William Rouse read the book “They Also Ran,’’ by Irving Stone, a survey of the lives of 20 losing candidates. The first character in the book struck a chord with Rouse: Greeley, a newspaper editor who ran against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Greeley lost in a landslide and remains the only candidate to die before the electoral votes were counted. But, it turns out, he once stopped in Norton, years before he became a candidate.
Rouse decided this would be a way to garner some notice for the town. He began collecting and hanging framed portraits on the second floor of his bank.
“It was a promotion kind of thing: Look what we do. What we have,” said Patsy Barnard, who worked as a teller at the bank for 23 years and oversaw the gallery for several years. “This part of Kansas hardly gets a mention on The Weather Channel. It’s nice to get recognition.”
Rouse died in 1981 but the gallery lived on, maintained by his daughter and bank employees. Shearer, the current curator who is also a bookkeeper at the bank and describes herself as a “blonde farm girl,” has encyclopedic knowledge of each man hanging on the wall.
“Henry Clay,” she said, “he’s our consistent loser.” In her remarks at Romney’s ceremony, Shearer observed: “Nearly all of the losers in this contest are forgotten. Who today has heard of Alton Parker, Horatio Seymour, Winfield Hancock, Alfred Landon? Even such recent presidential challengers as Michael Dukakis and Robert Dole fade fast from memory.”
No honoree has ever visited the gallery. And it is unclear if any even know it exists.
“Oh, no kidding. I’ve never heard of it,” Kerry said, when told that his photo was hanging in rural Kansas. “You know, I never felt sort of like a loser in that process. I felt we lost. I felt there were three or four things we could have done differently.”
In what the town is starting to consider a slight by the slighted, even Bob Dole — who is from Russell, Kansas, just two hours away — has never visited to see his portrait from 1996.
“I’d really love to see one of those losers walk right through that door,” said Sue Hillebrand, who is head of bookkeeping and has been at bank for 23 years.
“And if they told us ahead of time,” she added, “we could probably have a nice reception for them.”