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'Dead Fred,' a.k.a. ex-Justice Fred Vinson, resurrected for debate

Former Supreme Court justice Fred Vinson, affectionately dubbed 'dead Fred' by the frat brothers at Centre College in Danville, Ky., where the judge had attended college, will live on via a portrait brought to the vice presidential debate hall. NBC's John Yang reports.

DANVILLE, Ky.—At least one spectator will not have trouble obeying moderator Martha Raddatz’s admonition to remain silent during tonight’s vice presidential debate here at Centre College: former Supreme Court chief justice Fred Vinson.

He died in 1953.

But Vinson, Centre College Class of ’09 (that’s 1909), lives on in a portrait that hangs in his fraternity on campus, Phi Delta Theta. Since his death, frat brothers have taken the painting—affectionately called “Dead Fred”—to every home football game and other big events on campus. Earlier this week, chanting “Dead Fred,” they marched it to the debate hall for tonight’s face-off between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan.

“It’s just like he’s another one of the guys in the fraternity,” says senior Oakley Watkins. “He’s another fraternity brother of ours.”

“Getting him to witness different events on Centre College’s campus has been something of a tradition for us,” says sophomore  Steven Sims. “It’s just one of the quirky little things that makes us different.”

Says frat president Beau Sauley: “ ‘Dead Fred’s’ pretty cool.”

When Centre College hosted the 2000 vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, “Dead Fred” was given a wing chair in the audience. This time, he’s perched on a ledge high above the hall.

Frat brothers say he’s not pleased.

“I didn’t hear him say anything,” says Sims, “but he just had a look on his face. You could tell.”

Vinson, a member of a prominent family of Democrats, has the distinction of having served in all three branches of the federal government: elected to three terms in the House, Treasury secretary in President Harry Truman’s administration and nominated to the Supreme Court by Truman, the last chief justice named by a Democrat.

So you think he’d be backing President Obama and Vice President Biden for re-election, right?

He’s not talking.