May 1, 2012, represented the 50th year since the dedication of the Eisenhower Presidential Library on the campus of the center. A dinner, program and birthday cake provided a gala moment as Ike’s granddaughter, Mary Jean Eisenhower spoke.
She said the May 1, 1962 dedication was selected because it honored her great-grandmother, Ida Stover Eisenhower, who would have been 100 on that day. She did not know her great-grandmother but her grandfather spoke highly of his mother. She had seven boys – one of whom died as an infant – and she was proud of all of them.
When selected as Kansas Mother of the Year and a journalist asked her if she was proud of her son (a reference to Gen. Eisenhower) she quickly replied “which one.”
Ike was extremely proud of his mother, Mary Jean said, noting her administrative skills and other qualities that the future president would use.
When she looked across the complex and she could see the boyhood home it gave her a sense of pride, and an important personal connection with her family and its legacy.
“From a grateful family,” she said, “Happy birthday Ida, happy anniversary to the library and God bless Abilene.”
Director Karl Weissenbach said it was an appropriate time to thank past and current staff and he also paused to thank his predecessors – John Wickman and Dan Holt – for their leadership over the years. He also thanked the Eisenhower Presidential Foundation, which provides the resources for public programming. The federal government does not provide resources for programming. Instead it is the foundation’s work that allows programming for the visitors to enjoy.
While the building was officially opened in 1966, records indicated there were only two researchers there that day. In 2011, there were 800 researchers who visited the complex, which was a record. Weissenbach said the increase in researchers speaks volumes about Ike’s increasing relevancy and that Eisenhower has important and compelling stories to tell.
“As we get the word out we have a great president in a great community,” Weissenbach said.
The library has also been progressive and continues to explore technology so that even more people can gain access and in turn insight into Eisenhower, the director said.
Weissenbach read a letter from Ike’s son, John S.D. Eisenhower, who has never forgotten his roots.
“Despite the nomadic conditions of army life, my father and I considered this place home. We visited often, always staying in the little white family house over on the corner. We were both appointed to West Point from Abilene,” John Eisenhower wrote. “So when the museum and later the library were erected, I resented the loss of my neighborhood. I did not realize the importance of the two structures rising on the sites of my youth.
“The Eisenhower Library and the Museum, I soon realized, are national treasures. For the casual traveler driving along Interstate 70 they provide a stopover in which he or she can learn an incredible amount of American history in a short time—even more so, the dedicated tourist. I have been privileged to witness inspiring ceremonies such as the unveiling of Ike’s statue or the celebration of his 100th birthday. Many other events, histories and galas, are held here.
“The core of the library’s purpose, however, is accomplished by the dedicated people who work there, who sort out and make available the volumes of information to all, but especially to students,” Ike’s grandson wrote. “Such previous secret knowledge has helped Ike’s previously underappreciated presidency to its proper high place in history.
“This library, however, is not here for Ike’s sake. He is long gone,” John Eisenhower wrote. “It stands here today that all of us can learn from his accomplishments, his remarkable thinking as a statesman and politician and, yes, from his mistakes.”
There were several people who attended Tuesday’s celebration who also had a tie to the event 50 years ago. Retired Eisenhower Presidential Library staff member Bonnie Mulanax said 50 years ago was a magical time. On May 1, 1962, she was a senior at Abilene High School and was a twirler in the band.
“They had a parade that started in Eisenhower Park and it came down here,” Mulanax said and at the center provided her with a memorable moment. “Ike came right through the middle of the band. He was smiling and he was shaking hands.”
She went on to work at Ike’s library from 1969-2005.
“It is kind of funny in a way when I think about I never thought I would have worked here all of those years,” she said. “I enjoyed it. We grew up with Eisenhowers.”
Working in the photography lab allowed her to see and experience the family events in a way most people did not get to, Mulanax said.
Abilene mayor Dennis Weishaar, was a 14-year-old freshman at AHS and he remembered the day as being nice temperature-wise.
“I remembered all the schools were let out that day and the students were bused down here so we could watch history,” he said. “We were quite awe-struck.”
He chuckled if he remembered a lot about that day.
“Back then ‘no’ I was just a kid. I was glad to get out of school,” Weishaar said. “When I do look back on that experience I realized it happened here and nowhere else.”
He could remember several occasions when Ike came back to his hometown or when former president Lyndon Johnson came to Abilene “and all the hoopla that goes with it.”
“I remember I did get to shake his (Ike’s) hand once,” he said. “It was at the dedication. That’s what makes it a special moment today.”
Weishaar said over the years he has gained a greater appreciation of the nation’s 34th president, who served from 1953-61.
“He was larger than life,” the mayor said. “He set the bar really high.”
Eisenhower represents a leader that most Americans approve of – a leader who sought consensus.
“He made it look so easy,” Weishaar said. “That’s what professionals do, whether they are a carpenter, painter or president. We all think we can do that work because they make it look easy. When we do it we find out that doesn’t work that way.”
Tim Rives, assistant director at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, said the stories about Ike’s wanting to be about among the people were genuine. He said Eisenhower was one of the last presidents and former presidents who could enjoy being out in the public’s eye. The assassination of John F. Kennedy later that year forever changed the accessibility presidents and former presidents.
Rives said in 1958 Eisenhower was attending a dedication in New York and the The New York Times published his route and itinerary, which was not uncommon.
The anniversary date is important for the institution but also for the community. Ten-thousand researchers have sought access to Ike’s papers and hundreds of books have been written about Eisenhower.
“That research will continue,” Rives said, which will mean more books will be written about the former president for many years to come.
“This building is built to last,” Rives said.