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Published: Sunday, 11/8/2009

Eisenhower's heart remained in his Abilene home

BY DENNIS B. RODDY
BLOCK NEWS ALLIAN

ABILENE, Kan. - The 1909 edition of the Abilene High School yearbook included a tradition of the age - a class "prophecy," in which a member travels in time and writes of his classmates in years to come.

One classmate, in this prophecy, has made it to the very top.

"If Eisenhower is elected president this year, it will make his third term," the time traveler relates.

Yep, someone in the Abilene class had a premonition, yet, possibly to everyone's surprise, Edgar Eisenhower failed to fulfill it. His younger brother and classmate, Dwight, however, did, even though the class seer had pegged him as a professor of history at Yale.

The town that shaped Dwight David Eisenhower has retained the just-folks charm - a charm that survived picaresque beginnings.

The end stop on the Chisholm Trail, this town was once brimming with cowboys and such a rough spot the town fathers hired Wild Bill Hickok as sheriff.

Today, it is the epitome of middle America: a small town with a strait-laced Main Street, a turn-of-the-century train station proclaiming its name, and a presidential boyhood home straight out of the Disney props department.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum is one of 13 presidential libraries under the National Archives, most of them adjacent to some larger destination city, from Los Angeles to Atlanta.

"We're not a suburb of any place," says Dennis Medina, the museum curator who left Denver 40 years ago to spend a few years working here.

That Medina is still here testifies to the hold the town has on its sons.

Eisenhower's parents grew up here and his ancestors hailed from old German stock in Pennsylvania. Dubbed "Ike," Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas, where his father took the family for a few years after his Abilene store failed.

Ike was brought back as a child. As a man, he left little doubt that he considered Abilene his real birthplace. Its centrality to his vision of himself as a man from the heart of America is unmistakable, both in his words and in his efforts to ensure a foundation preserved the house along southeast Fourth Street where he lived, played, and dreamed. On his return from World War II, Ike declared that the thing of which he was most proud was being a son of Abilene.

"I always tell visitors you can't separate Abilene from the Eisenhower library and museum," says the center's director, Karl Weissenbach. "He would come back periodically."

Many Americans, though, and surely most Pennsylvanians, associate Eisenhower with the rambling farm in Gettysburg, Pa., that was one of dozens of stops in life for the young man who left here for West Point in 1909.

The center covers several acres, as did the Eisenhower home. It includes the two-story frame house in which he and his brothers were raised by Ida Stover Eisenhower, a pious and devout woman who reared them on the Bible, and David Eisenhower, an often frustrated man who dabbled in Greek, read copiously, experimented with several religions including Jehovah's Witnesses, and worked at a local dairy.

The home is the central artifact on the land, with tour guides explaining the details of the furnishings, almost all of them original.

There is the piano on which Ida consoled herself with music and the family Bible that records the 34th president's birth. It notes the birth of "D. Dwight Eisenhower." Little Ike (Edgar was "Big Ike") would switch the order and become Dwight D. Eisenhower when he enrolled at West Point.

Also on the grounds sit the Eisenhower Museum, which charges a small admission, and the Eisenhower Presidential Library. The library archives the Eisenhower papers, many of which are still being unsealed and released, triggering an ongoing reappraisal of a president once dismissed as more focused on golf than the daily grind.

In recent years, the Eisenhower legacy has enjoyed a renaissance. It includes a civil rights bill, a stronger U.S. involvement in international affairs, and the interstate highway system that kept towns such as Abilene, alongside I-70, from becoming lost villages.

"A lot of historians, I guess, have been conditioned to believe certain stereotypes about Eisenhower," says Weissenbach. "But the ones who actually come out to the site and do research discover, 'Hey, there's a lot more here than I thought.'•"

That reappraisal, which puts Eisenhower in the camp of political moderates under the current spectrum, has found new appeal. This year, for the first time since 1993, the center has received more than 100,000 visitors.

Center directors keep up a rotating series of exhibits, and the museum, while heavy on World War II and Eisenhower's role as allied commander, also boasts a few choice items. There is the campaign caboose from which Ike spoke during whistle stops. Another exhibit looks at the typical American living room in the 1950s. Still another gives a long look at the life of First Lady Mamie Doud Eisenhower.

Also on the grounds is the Place of Meditation, a small chapel where the president, his wife, and their firstborn child, Doud Dwight "Ikky" Eisenhower, who died of scarlet fever at age 3, are buried.

The sign along I-70 advertises Abilene as home to "heroes, mansions, and history." In a real sense, the town itself is something of a museum, with grand, Victorian homes lining streets and some of the haunts where the young Eisenhower sons hung out still standing.

A few of those mansions are open for tours, and Medina said a trolley takes visitors around for a look at the town that sired one of the major figures of the 20th century.

"I also see Abilene as a museum," says Weissenbach, the director. "It's a free museum, if you will."

For more information visit: eisenhower.archives.gov.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dennis B. Roddy is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: droddy@post-gazette.com.



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