By Robert F. Darden

When President Eisenhower came to Waco

In the Spring of 1956, Dwight David Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States, was in a very good mood. His popularity ratings were high ahead of the upcoming election, he (and the nation) had survived the existential threat of demagogue Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and he was regaining his health after a September 1955 heart attack.

It was time, his best friend and golfing buddy Ralph Pittman told him, to take a victory lap. And Pittman, a Baylor University graduate, knew the perfect place — Waco, Texas.

And that’s how the President came to town.

Of course, nothing is ever really that easy. Once the time and date were set — Baylor commencement at 11 a.m. Friday May 25, 1956 — the White House immediately sent an extensive list of logistical mandates and requirements to both the university and the city of Waco.

The Texas Collection’s copies of Baylor press releases from that period vividly depict the host of challenges that suddenly faced the school as it grappled with the enormity of the upcoming event.

Cognizant of Ike’s popularity, the university initially proposed the 50,000-seat Baylor Stadium for the event. The White House nixed the idea for security reasons and through Pittman, the two parties compromised on the 12,000-seat Heart o’ Texas Coliseum.

In addition to security concerns, the prospect of just who would get tickets vexed university and city officials for weeks — particularly the 665 Baylor graduates and their families. Baylor Vice President Roy J. McKnight is said to have worked “feverishly” to handle the thousands of “urgent” ticket requests.

As the big day grew closer, Eisenhower’s impending visit dominated the front pages and editorial columns of “The Waco Tribune-Herald”, as well as the coffee-room chatter across town.

The Eisenhower Presidential Library has the president’s original May 25 agenda, detailed to the minute:

6:39 a.m. Depart White House
6:55 a.m. Board The Columbine, the presidential plane, with an entourage that included Pittman
9:50 a.m. Arrive at James Connally Air Force Base to be met by Texas Gov. Allan Shivers and Baylor President William H. White

That’s exactly how it happened. The “trim silver Barracuda-nosed” Columbine arrived at 9:49 a.m. and taxied to a roped off area where it was met by a crowd of dignitaries, security personnel, musicians and photographers. Eisenhower, “The Tribune-Herald” reported, was first off of the plane, followed by Pittman:

“The cabin door swung open to a smiling, beaming President of the United States. Dressed in a dark gray suit, carrying a dark hat in his hand, the president stood in the doorway of The Columbine for a couple of minutes, a picture of perfect, Texas-tan health, so that the scores of news and amateur photographers could snap flash bulbs in his face.”

Another quick meet-and-greet followed with a large gathering on the tarmac that included Rep. Bob Poage, the Hon. Oveta Culp Hobby, Harlon Fentress, Sid Richardson, among others.

From there, Eisenhower entered the assigned open touring car and began the 12 1/2 mile procession from the air base to the Coliseum. In those pre-Interstate 35 days, the parade route led down Waco Drive where crowds, including schoolchildren, gathered to get a glimpse of the old war hero. Some intrepid souls, who had staked choice locations early Friday morning, sat or stood for hours in the late May heat.

“The students cheered and clapped impartially for National Guard jeeps, police cars and motorcycles but they reserved their biggest applause for the President as, bare headed under the hot sun, he stood up in the open touring car smiling and waving,” wrote reporter Tom Caldwell.

The procession crawled along at 15 to 20 miles per hour and slowed perceptibly as it neared Waco High School where a thousand students “converged” at Ninth Street and Waco Drive.

As the presidential procession edged down Waco Drive, National Guard troops were forced to hold back the large throngs that lined the road through to 25th Street. Near Crestview School on New Road, the presidential car slowed nearly to a halt as Eisenhower waved and “beamed” at cheering school children.

Finally at the Heart o’ Texas Coliseum, more crowds strained for even a glimpse of the President. The building was ringed with members of the Highway Patrol, Waco police, the National Guard, the Secret Service and plain-clothes detectives (readily identifiable by the little white arrows pinned to their lapels) who set up multiple checkpoints for valid ticket-holders.

Inside the unairconditioned Coliseum, the heat was already rising (though the stage had two massive AC units running on full). At 11 a.m., Baylor President William H. White rose to tell the restless audience that there would be a slight delay to accommodate the national media on the specially built platforms directly in front of the stage.

The location of the massive stages created the day’s most controversial issue — it meant that most graduates could only see the legs of the camera operators during the ceremony, not Eisenhower.

Still, Baylor pulled out all the stops to mark the occasion. The Golden Wave Band struck up the “Triumphal March” from “Aida”, followed by “Hail to the Chief”, the old hymn “God of Our Fathers” by a mixed chorus and trumpet trio led by Dean Daniel Sternberg and several introductions and prayers.

Texas newspapers had speculated for days on possible topics for Eisenhower’s address, though few expected a significant policy announcement. As reported in “The Baylor Line,” however, the President delivered a mostly inspirational message on the importance of science and faith, ending with these words:

“Believing as you do in the brotherhood of man, and in his right to freedom — joined with all the millions of dedicated men and women at home, linked in partnership with the hundreds of millions of like-minded people around the globe — you constitute the mightiest temporal force on earth.”

The President then received an honorary LLD degree from the university and remarked to resounding cheers, “I hope the graduates of Baylor University of 1956 will permit me to claim their class as my own. I would be very proud to do so.”

The ceremony closed with a benediction by Southern Baptist missionary W. Lowrey Cooper of Argentina (father of longtime Baylor administrator Dr. William Cooper), the singing of the “Good Ol’ Baylor Line”, and of Grieg’s “Triumphal March” as Ike exited the Coliseum.

Unfortunately, White and Pittman’s original dream of having the President tour the Baylor campus was scrubbed at the last minute by a 30-minute meeting with Texas Republicans at James Connally Air Force Base.

Then, right on schedule, The Columbine roared off. The next stop on the President’s schedule was the Gettysburg Airport, where Eisenhower planned to spend a quiet evening at the Gettysburg Farm.

Despite the presence of tens of thousands of people on that historic Friday, Mrs. Ullie Jones, 77, of Huntington, was the lone casualty. Jones was “bruised and shaken” when a newsreel cameraman, climbing down from the photographer’s platform, slipped and fell. His bulky camera landed on Jones, who was taken to Hillcrest Hospital for observation. Fortunately, Jones was only bruised and the Fox Movietone News cameraman more embarrassed than injured.

Only one man seemed unimpressed — Millard Logan, age unknown, of Rosebud, but formerly of Waco. “I saw Teddy Roosevelt,” Logan sniffed to a reporter. “He waved right back at me from the back of a railroad car at the Katy Station. I was seven years old. This is the only president I’ve seen since.”

It had been, by all other accounts, a perfectly splendid day.