As the state?s largest airport adopts its new name ? Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport ? Kansas residents are revisiting the legacy and memories of the only U.S. president to hail from the Sunflower State.
At least two Newton women will never forget meeting ?Ike.? Dorothy Legge and Rosella Arellano each had a personal encounter with Eisenhower, giving them a glimpse into the private life of the small-town boy who became president.
As a young woman in 1950s Abilene, Legge worked evenings at the Lamer Hotel. The hotel, which was also known as the Sunflower, was Eisenhower?s hometown base of operations ever since the campaign trail; it was known as ?The Little White House.? Legge was the hotel transcriptionist; every evening she would record the day?s transactions and accounts.
Legge said Eisenhower and his entourage would take over the building?s top floor ? the eighth, which made it the tallest building in Abilene.
Once, when Eisenhower gave a speech inside the hotel, Legge remembers people packing into the streets for two blocks in every direction. Loudspeakers were posted outside so everyone could listen. She also remembers how the hotel tried to meet every request of the president and his staff.
?They always wanted liquor, and Abilene was dry at that time,? she recalled. ?So we had a man that came in every night and brought liquor. I had to handle the exchange.?
Eisenhower was the first president Legge ever voted for. She was dumbfounded when he dropped in to talk to her at work.
?One evening, unbeknownst to his staff, he came down and visited with me without the permission of the Secret Service,? Legge said. ?It was just like visiting with my dad. I really enjoyed him. He was very pleasant.?
The president asked Legge about her family and their farm. He was especially interested in Legge?s father, who happened to be friends with former president Herbert Hoover.
?At first I was kind of scared, you know ? how am I going to talk to this man?? she said. ?And after we started, it was like talking to my best friend.?
In fact, Eisenhower had such strong ties to his actual childhood friends that he once dropped in to visit one at Newton Presbyterian Manor.
It was in the mid-1960s, after Eisenhower had left office. Rosella Arellano was the Manor?s evening nursing supervisor then. Lucille Anderson, executive director of the Manor, called Arellano to let her know that one of their residents ? Mrs. R.L. Price ? would have a late visitor one night. Arellano was to let him in.
?I said, who is it?? Arellano recalls. ?And she said, ?President Eisenhower.? And I said, ?No problem.??
Mrs. Price had grown up next door to the Eisen?howers in Abilene. After Arellano escorted the former president to his friend?s room, she offered coffee to the Secret Service and other members of the group. Sen. George McGovern was in the entourage, and he later sent Arellano a personal thank-you note.
?They filled up that whole circle drive there in front of the Manor,? Arellano said. ?And Mrs. R.L. Price visited with Dwight Eisenhower, and it was just like visiting with a next-door neighbor. It was a very beautiful thing.?
It wasn?t long after, in 1969, that Dwight D. Eisen?hower dies. His body returned to Kansas by train for burial.
His presidential legacy is preserved at the museum and library dedicated to him in Abilene, and now in the name of Wichita?s airport. But the man a nation knew as Ike also left a warm personal legacy among those like Legge and Arellano, who were among the lucky few to come face to face with a president.
by Erin O?Donnell
Newton Presbyterian Manor