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JOSEPH N. BELL

25 Years Ago, Lyndon Johnson Came to Irvine

June 24, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

Twenty-five years ago this week, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson made a public speech in Orange County at the dedication of the site for UC Irvine. The rationale for the President of the United States appearing at such an event was partly political, partly convenient and partly good ol' boy reciprocation.

No two people know better what took place that day than Dan Aldrich, UCI's first chancellor, and Brad Atwood, then UCI's public affairs officer. Aldrich is now retired--or at least as retired as is possible for him--to Laguna Niguel, and Atwood (after working at UCI for 15 years) is retired in Dana Point.

Recalls Atwood: "President Johnson wasn't on campus for much more than an hour altogether, and I remember thinking as I watched him fly off that we'd worked our tails off for six weeks to prepare for that one hour."

Using a combination of Aldrich and Atwood recollections and old Times' clippings as sources, the day went like this:

Johnson had been President for less than seven months after the assassination of John Kennedy when he came to show the flag over a weekend for his California constituents, raise some money for the Democratic Party, check out a new and highly touted weapon, and use some local ceremonies as a presidential platform.

He arrived at Edwards Air Force Base on Friday morning, June 19, 1964, took a look at the super-secret, twin-tailed A-11 fighter plane and the prototype of the lunar landing vehicle, flew to San Francisco where he officiated at the ground breaking for the Bay Area Rapid Transit System and spoke at a dinner sponsored by the President's Club.

He was due to repeat the dinner speech at a fund-raiser the next evening at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and UC President Clark Kerr and regent Ed Pauley--an old political crony--persuaded him to use the time in between to make an appearance in "Goldwater country." Ground had already been broken at UCI with appropriate ceremonies, so UC administrators dreamed up an event they called a "site dedication" for the President of the United States.

"We had a bunch of holes where the original five buildings of the central campus were under construction," Atwood recalls, "but it still looked like a prairie, dry and dusty. The only building erected then was at Jamboree and MacArthur. There was only one road leading into the campus so there was a horrendous traffic jam on the day of LBJ's speech."

Aldrich scouted the route early that morning and found Eiler Larson--the fabled Laguna Greeter--walking up MacArthur toward the campus. "He'd walked all the way from Laguna Beach," Aldrich says, "so I picked him up and drove him the rest of the way. He got there plenty early."

Early enough to find a seat in the bleachers that had been erected to accommodate 8,000 people. Atwood estimates there were twice that many spectators, many of them standing or sitting on deck chairs they brought with them. The day, a typically June one, started off cloudy but was sunny by the time the program started. Mercifully, it went off almost precisely on schedule.

"There was no place to land the President's helicopter," Atwood says, "because there wasn't a single inch of paving on campus. So we paved one of the parking lots ahead of schedule."

After working a reception line of UC regents (who had their first meeting ever on the UCI campus that day) and sitting through brief talks by Aldrich, Kerr and then-Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, Johnson spoke for about 20 minutes. His thesis was that "democracy, not communism, represents the way to the future. The hopes of the American people depend on the kind of society we can build in the United States . . . and that, in turn, rests on our system of education."

He then described his vision of an urban extension service he wanted to see established within the nation's university system that would help solve the problems of urban America in the same manner that university agricultural services had helped solve farming problems.

Turns out it wasn't his vision at all. "We sent him the material for his speech," recalls Aldrich, who was--and is--an internationally acclaimed expert in agriculture. "It was an idea I'd had for a long time, and the main thing that influenced me to come to UCI. I saw the opportunity there to provide the same sort of service for an urban society as the land grant schools had provided for an agricultural society."

Although Johnson expanded on this idea at some length, neither Aldrich nor Atwood is aware of any subsequent effort to translate it into action as part of Johnson's Great Society. But it played nicely at the UCI site dedication. When Johnson finished his speech, the Marine Band and an all-Orange County high school choir put a cap on the proceedings. The President shook hands with the choir members on his way back to his helicopter, then he was gone. Elapsed time in Goldwater country: about 70 minutes.

He left a small mark, however. In his brief stopover, President Johnson unveiled a commemorative bronze plaque that is now displayed near the entrance to the current UCI Administration Building, telling us that "LBJ was here." But Dan Aldrich and Brad Atwood don't need any reminders. Although their impressions of Lyndon Johnson were formed largely at other functions, they were reinforced at UCI.

Says Aldrich: "This man may smile with his lips, but there is no smile in his eyes. He was all business--all the time."

And Atwood remembers especially the Presidential handshake: "Biggest pair of hands I've ever seen."

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