The first time I met Dwight David Eisenhower was in an elevator at the Biltmore. It was 1962, and the then-former President was speaking to the World Affairs Council.
The speech was to be preceded by a press conference I had been asked to put together. I had chosen a conference room on the mezzanine and I had ordered the usual coffee and sweet rolls and orange juice.
Someone that morning, with no prior warning, had decided it would be dandy to present Eisenhower with a fireman's helmet. I don't know why. It was simply one of those things people think of for no ostensible reason. Maybe we had a new fire chief. Maybe the chief liked to share hats. Maybe Ike really was crazy about firemen's helmets.
Great was the travail and the moaning when it was realized that no one knew the former President's hat size. The Secret Service didn't know. The aides we could reach didn't know.
After the press conference, I suggested that Eisenhower and I take the back elevator down to the backstage area in the Biltmore Bowl. Of course, the Secret Service had it all planned and were with us. As soon as I got in the small elevator with the man whose smile really was as bright and open as a Kansas sunflower, I said, "I'm Zan Thompson, Mr. President."
He said, "Yes, I know. We met before the press conference."
I thought, well it's a millisecond to the ground floor and then I lose my chance forever. I said, "Mr. President, would you please tell me your hat size?"
He told me and did not even ask why. He must have thought it was just a strange hobby of mine.
We got out of the elevator and I ran for a backstage telephone and called the public relations office at the fire department and told them the hat size. The fire chief got there in time to present the dashing helmet to the former chief executive with a flourish. And that was my first move in politics.
Last Sunday about 300 people gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first five-star general and 34th President of the United States.
It was held in the Annenberg Center of the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. Eisenhower loved the Coachella Valley and his home at El Dorado Country Club. It was his friend, Freeman Gosden of "Amos 'n Andy" fame, who convinced him to lend his name to the medical center in Rancho Mirage.
The birthday celebration was introduced by master of ceremonies Joseph Tobin, vice president for external affairs for the Eisenhower Medical Center. The first speaker was the almost-legendary Alex Dreier a United Press correspondent in World War II in the European theater where Eisenhower was commander in chief. Dreier delighted the audience with Ike stories and war stories told in rich, rolling accents that filled the Annenberg Auditorium like the chords of a giant organ.
He told of how General of the Army George Marshall jumped Ike over 350 officers to give him the European command. Ike was a consummate soldier and an excellent diplomat. He forged the greatest fighting force the world had ever seen from the military forces of France, England, the United States and the countries that ultimately made up NATO. In the German language, Dreier said, Eisenhower means "forger of iron."
In another recollection, Dreier said that after weeks of preparation for the invasion of the Hitler-dominated continent, a meteorologist told the general that there would be a six- to eight-hour window of good weather. Ike looked at his allied commanders and said, "Gentlemen, we go."
Another speaker was former Rep. Pat Hillings who read a selection from a book by Richard M. Nixon in which the Nixon pointed out the simple but majestic language Eisenhower used and how it resembled the words of Abraham Lincoln. Ike was a Civil War buff and a student of Lincoln.
The third speaker was newspaper publisher Virgil Pinkley who was head of United Press for Europe and Africa during World War II. Pinkley recalled that the first time Winston Churchill met Eisenhower, he said to his cabinet and staff, "Gentlemen, God has sent this man to us in this hour to bring us victory."
Pinkley has written a book on Eisenhower called "Eisenhower Declassified." He spent 10 years writing it and did more than 700 interviews.
In Sunday's birthday celebration audience was an Eisenhower Medical Center volunteer, Norman Ludkey, who had served at the Pentagon with Ike. A man named Johnny Catron presented the medical center with an oversized poster that had been forgotten in an attic since World War II. It was a handsome photograph of Eisenhower, reading at the top "Buy War Bonds" and at the bottom "For Victory." It had been pasted to a window shade for preservation.
Then all the guests were invited to a reception with birthday cakes, several of them, one with an excellent portrait of Eisenhower in frosting.
In winding up the program, Alex Dreier said that if the general had been there he would have said to those in their autumn years, "We're on the back nine and it looks like the 17th hole."
It was a lovely birthday celebration for a man who adds a shine to the words \o7 Great American\f7 .