.....The BiKeWriTeR

Lunching with the granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Abilene, KS – One goal of the tour was to visit the Evel Knievel Museum in Topeka, KS, and the other was to knock one more Presidential Museum off my bucket list. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Museum is in Abilene, KS. I wondered though, were there any Eisenhower family members still living in the community?

The get-it-done director of Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau, Julie Roller Weeks, put the meet together as she introduced me to the youngest granddaughter of President Eisenhower, Mary Jean Eisenhower. “My job is to grow the businesses in this community,” said Roller Weeks. “If you’re having fun in Abilene, then you’re probably spending money in Abilene.”

We lunched at Hapisoul Cafe & Juicery.

A brief history note: Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, serving from 1953 – 1961. The Eisenhower’s had two sons, Doud and John. The first son Doud died of Scarlet Fever when he was 3 years old.

John, followed in his father’s footsteps, graduating West Point. He married and had four children. Mary Jean was the youngest, born in 1955. She saw her grandparents often at the White House since her father worked for the presidential administration as Assistant Staff Secretary in the White House, on the Army’s General Staff, and as an assistant to General Andrew Goodpaster. 

Mary Jean Eisenhower was just a delight. She wore a black top and dressy black pants, simple gold earrings and necklace, and she had an easy smile.

Born two years into her grandfather’s first term, Mary Jean recalled an incident with a toy car when she was 5-years old and tooling around the White House lawn.

Photo courtesy Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum

“I got my first speeding ticket at the White House,” she said. The Mattel toy company gave all four grandchildren an electric car. The siblings had to take turns, but when it was Mary Jean’s turn to drive, it was her brother who stepped in and said he had to.

“I thought it was odd… but, it was never my turn,” she said.

As the story went, one day Mary Jean’s brother was off doing something and so were her sisters and there she was alone, with the Thunderbird.

“I thought… Okay, it’s my turn,” she said. Having watched enough cartoons about driving she jumped in, turned it on and hit the gas.

“I was doing donuts in front of the diplomatic reception area,” Mary Jean said. “Suddenly there’s this hand and the man said, ‘Ma’am, I believe you’re speeding.’

“Well, I didn’t know how to brake and he told me to just take your foot off the gas. So, I didn’t know how much he would be revealing to my grandfather.”

Photo courtesy Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum

Mary Jean took the ticket and went to her room and sat there the entire afternoon “just straining about the whole thing.”

Too young to even read the ticket, she eventually went down to dinner. “Granddad wasn’t home from ‘work’ yet… so I just looked around the table to see if anyone knew,” she said.

Two things were unacceptable in the Eisenhower family, one was to tell a lie and the other was to break the law. “I heard the elevator door and I caught granddad first and told him the whole story. I didn’t lie, but I did break the law and he basically said I was going to have to wait 11 more years until I could get my driver’s license,” she said. “I really wished he would have just sent me to my room.”

At 17, Mary Jean did have her license and on her first night out with her dad she flipped the car. “It was an old road and I hugged a turn and we flipped and I just remember seeing my dad’s neck and we had our seatbelts on, which was unusual for that day and time. I remember the top of the car was smashed but it still ran and he made me drive it home.”

The White House, is also where young Mary Jean found out the truth about Santa Claus. “My older sisters were tired of hearing me squawk about it and they told me the truth and said whatever you do don’t tell mom we told you,” she said.

Another recollection at the White House was ‘playing house’ with her sisters. Mary Jean was the youngest and they put her in a carriage… and left her. “I was screaming and nobody heard me,” she said.

During lunch several people stopped at the table to chat about things like the Abilene Rotary Club or the local bicycle trail. One woman introduced a young boy she was with. “And this is Mary Jean Eisenhower; her grandfather was President Eisenhower,” she said. The boy’s eyes lit up; you could tell he was impressed.

During her professional career Mary Jean was chief executive officer and later president of People to People International. The program was started by President Eisenhower in 1956. It focused on education, culture, student exchange and humanitarian efforts. The work took Mary Jean to 70 different countries.

Photo courtesy Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum

“That organization became my everything,” she said. For 25 years she worked to create opportunities for people to have relationships and understand different cultures in the hopes of discouraging war with another country when you’re friends with them.

Egypt, was Mary Jean’s favorite country. She met world leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev and presidents including Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. She met royalty including Prince Charles and Princess Anne.

Questioned if she was schooled on dignitary protocol she said, “You were encouraged just to be your civilized best.”

She cried when Princess Diana was died. “Her death was one of the few I’ve ever taken personally,” said Mary Jean. “She was my hero.”

Photo courtesy Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum

Mary Jean also spoke about her grandmother Mamie. After her grandfather died, her grandmother would go to the hospital to see the babies. Yes, she had been the First Lady, but apparently she would walk into the nursery to hold the babies.

“Losing her child at age 3-and-a-half and I think that was always present,” said Mary Jean.

Onto the next generation, Mary Jean has one son and he has four children. “They all look like little Eisenhowers,” she said.

Walk around Abilene… and for that matter much of Kansas and the Eisenhower name is found everywhere including schools, street names, and even a resurrection of banners and pins.

Mary Jean now makes her home in Abilene. “When I was 14 and my grandfather died, I remember saying I want to live here,” she said. “Life took me in other directions…. It took me 50 years but I finally came back.”

Photo courtesy Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum

One added note – during the conversation I had to ask how her grandfather handled the media. Mary Jean told the following story.

“I came across this picture. My brother is in shorts and it’s Easter and he’s kneeling down and he’s got a toy gun.

My grandfather is holding a meeting with the press and if they started harping on him too much, he would clap his hands three times and David would know to pull out his toy gun and then all the attention would go to him. They took pictures of him and he was cute and it was very clever.”

Tidbits from the tour…

1 comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *