Presidential descendant helps mark special day at Oregon school

Merrill Eisenhower Atwater, great-grandson of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, center, takes questions from Eisenhower students during his keynote address Friday afternoon in Oregon.
Merrill Eisenhower Atwater, great-grandson of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, center, takes questions from Eisenhower students during his keynote address Friday afternoon in Oregon.

Merrill Eisenhower Atwater drove 12 hours from Kansas City to northwest Ohio, much of it on I-70. On Friday, he described to students in Oregon how his great-grandfather, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, had signed the legislation in 1956 that created the Interstate Highway System, a project he said was “the biggest economic boon in U.S. history.”

Mr. Atwater arrived to celebrate Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School’s 50th anniversary. Hundreds of students, staff, and visitors filed into the auditorium to hear speakers and music, then went outside to the front of the school, where a time capsule filled with school artifacts was dedicated.

Amy Hansen, a school mother and chairman of the anniversary committee, and Principal Becci Bihn decided early on they wanted to have a member of the Eisenhower family there to help commemorate the school and its famous namesake, who was a five-star general in World War II and the 34th U.S. president.

PHOTO GALLERY: Eisenhower Middle School assembly

Ms. Hansen at first suggested asking David Eisenhower and his wife, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who visited the school for its 25th anniversary in 1988, but they were unavailable. David Eisenhower is the grandson of the late president; his wife is the daughter of former President Richard Nixon.

The Eisenhower Foundation, which supports the Eisenhower Library, put Ms. Hansen in touch with Mr. Atwater.

Mr. Atwater, 32, said he enjoyed his visit to Oregon. He spoke in students’ classrooms before the noon assembly, and he walked among them in the auditorium, taking questions and recounting the life of “Ike,” his great-grandfather’s boyhood nickname that stayed with him for life.

Ian Johnson, 11, sports an
Ian Johnson, 11, sports an "I Like Ike" button at Friday's address.

He emphasized the similarities between Oregon and Abilene, Kan., where his great-grandfather grew up. Both communities were near a larger city and had a couple of major industries. And both instilled the same solid Midwestern values, he said.

Mr. Atwater lives in Kansas City and works in the sustainable fuel industry. His mother, Mary Jean Eisenhower, is the late president’s granddaughter. She was born during Mr. Eisenhower’s first term and christened in the Blue Room of the White House.

Jack Allred, an eighth grader at the school, said students had been learning about President Eisenhower in the run-up to the observance.

He knew, he said, that Mr. Eisenhower had been the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe who oversaw the D-Day invasion during World War II before he became a two-term Republican president in the 1950s.

Legislative representatives in attendance included state Sen. Edna Brown (D., Toledo); Jacob Smith, a staff assistant to U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), and state Rep. Matt Szollosi (D., Oregon).

Ms. Brown read a Senate resolution honoring Eisenhower school, and Mr. Smith presented Ms. Bihn with a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol. Mr. Szollosi read a proclamation from the Ohio House commemorating the occasion.

Eisenhower Middle School originally was a junior high, but it became a middle school after a grade reconfiguration in 1988. In the 2013-14 school year, after another reconfiguration, it will become Eisenhower Intermediate School and house fifth and sixth graders. Ms. Bihn will be transferred to what is now Fassett Middle School but next year will be the Oregon district's junior high. Only a secretary and four teachers will remain at Eisenhower.

The time capsule dedicated at the end of the ceremony contained items such as photos, DVDs with slide shows and clips of interviews, and a school athletic jersey.

With the students standing in the damp, cold wind, the Stars and Stripes were raised as the school band played “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Oregon Superintendent Michael Zalar told the students they were part of the Eisenhower family and one day could achieve greatness, as Dwight D. Eisenhower did.

“If it could happen in Kansas, it could happen here in Oregon, Ohio,” he said.

Contact Carl Ryan at: or 419-724-6095.