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Preserving Eisenhower's Legacy Through Football

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  • Our 2016 Football Preview paid tribute to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his legacy in football.
    Our 2016 Football Preview paid tribute to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his legacy in football.

In the spring of 2016 we gathered 90 of the state's top football players at the Eisenhower Presidentialy Library, Museum and Boyhood Home in Abilene to host our annual feature photo shoots.

I’m ashamed to admit that my trip to the Eisenhower Presidential Library, May 21, 2016, was only my third time visiting this important Kansas attraction, the first coming in January of that year when I met with officials from the library to propose a  sponsorship of our 2016 cover feature, and the second earlier in May to scout the location prior to the shoot.

A brief tour of the campus in early May left me in awe. I was certainly familiar with Eisenhower, who was raised in Abilene and would go on to serve as the 34th President of the United States.

I knew he was a bona fide war hero who served as the Commanding General of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in the European Theater during World War II, but it wasn’t until I toured the museum with communications director, Samantha Kenner, that I fully realized  the importance of this beautiful research facility and historic treasure located in the heart of our state.

As we strolled through the museum looking for staging areas for group photographs of fully padded football players I was fascinated by the beautiful murals, the artifacts from WWII, and the retrospective of Ike’s lifelong connection to the city of Abilene. But it was one piece in particular that consumed my attention, and continues to still. It was a nondescript dark wood antique table. One like you might find in your grandparents’ home.

“That,” Kenner said, “is the table where the D-Day Invasion was planned.”

I literally got goose-bumps. Immediately I imagined Eisenhower, in the spring of 1944, leaning over maps of German occupied France, with his eyes narrow and intense, finalizing the details of the invasion that would swing the momentum of the war in the Allies’ favor and eventually lead to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Thousands of Allied heroes would sacrifice their lives during the invasion, providing the catalyst that would soon after put an end to Hitler’s reign of terror.

But it isn’t just military prowess or Presidential leadership that are on display at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home, it’s also a look at Eisenhower’s youth in Abilene, including his connection to the sport of football, and his belief that it was more than just a game, but an essential part of his development.

Eisenhower would go on to play, and later coach, for the United States Military Academy at West Point, and, as Pam Sanfilippo, education specialist with the Eisenhower Presidential Library, told the dozens of high school football players visiting the museum that spring, Eisenhower believed “football, perhaps more than any other sport, tends to instill in men the feeling that victory comes through hard–almost slavish–work, team play, self-confidence, and an enthusiasm that amounts to dedication.”

Those words are inspiring and it seems the country is in need of a dose of teamwork and perserverance now more than ever.

On this Veterans Day, we hope you'll find inspiration in this article from the 2016 football preview, and we hope you’ll find some time, once the coronavirus allows for it, to visit the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home in Abilene, Kansas. The recently renovated facility is a must-see destination in the Sunflower State.

Preserving Eisenhower’s Legacy Through Football

By Jennifer McDaniel, For Kansas Pregame

As a teenager, Dwight D. Eisenhower wasn’t the biggest player on his high school football team. But what the Abilene, Kan., boy lacked in size, he made up for in passion for the game.

The baby-faced Eisenhower was all too familiar with being called “Little Ike,” living in the shadows of his older brother and standout athlete, Edgar, or “Big Ike,” as their classmates called him.

Even after entering the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1911, the cadet was still considered “too light” for varsity play. But he didn’t let that stop him.

A year later, the athlete, who now stood at about 5-feet, 10-inches tall, gained extra weight, tipping the scale at 174 pounds.

Eventually, he attracted the attention of varsity coaches.

“Thereafter, in no game or practice session could the coaches claim I lacked pugnacity and combativeness, assumed to offset my lack of weight,” he wrote years later in his 1967 book, “At Ease: Stories I Tell To Friends.”

“Although I had put on almost 20 pounds since the previous season, I was still light for line plunging and line backing. But my enthusiasm made up somewhat for my lack of tonnage. In any event, I always played as hard as I knew how, trying to instill the fear of Eisenhower in every opponent.”

Although a serious injury permanently ended his football career, he went on to coach at West Point as well as for several Army teams.

Not only had football fueled his determination, but three decades later in the midst of war, Eisenhower realized the skills he developed on the field were instrumental in making him a leader later in life.

“…I noted with real satisfaction how well ex-footballers seemed to have leadership qualifications and it wasn’t sentiment that made it seem so — not with names that turned out to be Bradley, Keyes, Patton, Simpson, Van Fleet, Harmon, Hobbs, Jouett, Patch and Prichard. Among many others, they measured up,” he wrote in “At Ease.”

“I think this was more than coincidence. I believe that football, perhaps more than any other sport, tends to instill in men the feeling that victory comes through hard—almost slavish—work, team play, self-confidence, and an enthu - siasm that amounts to dedication.”

Players profiled in the cover and class features in this year’s edition of Kansas Pregame gathered for a photo shoot in May at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home in Abilene. During the visit, players were welcomed by staff member Pam Sanfilippo, an education specialist, and later toured the presidential library and museum to learn more about the extraordinary life and legacy of the only five-star general, who became president of the United States.

“So I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that he would love that all of you are here today, and he would congratulate each of you on your accomplishments so far,” Sanfilippo told the players. “In his experience, he found that athletes, and football players especially, developed leadership skills that lasted throughout their careers both on and off the field.”

The life of a leader

The third of seven sons, Dwight was born in Texas, and returned to Abilene when he was a little more than a year old. Eisenhower’s parents previously lived in Abilene, and moved to Texas before he was born.

Growing up, Dwight was an average student, but excelled in sports, especially football and baseball. However, since there were no organized sports at the high school level, Eisenhower and his friends formed the Abilene Athletic Association so they could compete with other area high schools. Dwight served as president.

Following graduation in 1909, Eisenhower worked at the local creamery for a few years to help pay for his older brother’s college education. As he waited for his turn to further his education, Eisenhower was appointed to West Point, where he graduated in 1915.

Through the years, Dwight quickly worked his way through the ranks, and after assignments in the War Department, he accompanied Gen. Douglas MacArthur to the Philippines as an assistant military adviser.

Following Pearl Harbor, Eisenhower was again called. This time, he was placed in charge of plans for the Pacific War. Two months later, Marshall promoted him to chief of the War Plans Division where he received his second general’s star.

General Eisenhower, who served as Chief of Staff of the United States Army from November 1945 until February 1948, later resigned to serve as president of Columbia University. Two years later, at President Truman’s request, Eisenhower took a leave of absence from Columbia to command the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as the first Supreme Commander of NATO.

In June 1952, Eisenhower returned to Abilene to announce his candidacy for President of the United States. Eisenhower assumed the presidency in January 1953, making him the country’s 34th president. He would serve two terms.

Following retirement, President Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, retired to his small farm outside Gettysburg, Pa. In August 1965, Eisenhower suffered a serious heart attack and was repeatedly hospitalized during the next three years. After having another heart attack during the summer of 1968, he spent his last few months in Walter Reed Army Hospital, where he died in March 1969.

After his death, Eisenhower returned to Abilene for his final post.

The funeral, which took place on the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum grounds, began on the steps of the library and concluded inside the Place of Meditation, the chapel where Eisenhower was buried.

The Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home

The Eisenhower Presidential Library is one of 13 presidential libraries administered by the National Archives and Records Administration. Presidential Libraries promote understanding of the presidency and the American experience. They preserve and provide access to historical materials, support research, and create interactive programs and exhibits that educate and inspire.

The extensive collection contains historical records, papers, photographs, original motion picture film and artifacts - consistently making it one of the most visited for researchers from around the world averaging about 800 researchers per year with about 30 percent visiting from foreign countries, Sanfilippo said.

Plans for a museum to honor General Eisenhower and all World War II veterans began soon after the end of WWII, she said. The site chosen for the museum was on property adjacent to Ike’s boyhood home where his mother, Ida, lived until her death in 1946.

Following Ida’s death, the Eisenhower brothers donated the home to the Eisenhower Foundation in the family’s name. Subsequently, Sanfilippo said, the home was opened to the public, making it a tourist attraction years before Eisenhower even considered running for president. The residence was later turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration - making it the only presidential library to own and operate a boyhood home.

“From start to finish, the entire campus is a place to learn about Eisenhower, his life and times in an engaging and inspiring way,” she said. “We highly recommend visitors start with the introductory film that provides an overview of Eisenhower’s life, connecting his Abilene roots with the strong values and patriotism he exemplified throughout his life.”

The film sets the stage for touring the boyhood home and museum, where visitors can explore both personal and public aspects of Eisenhower’s life.

“The Place of Meditation is a quiet space to reflect on Eisenhower’s many contributions to our nation’s history, and is the final resting place of Ike, his wife, Mamie, and their first-born son,” Sanfilippo said. “And the grounds, with the statue of General Eisenhower and the Pylons, add the element of tribute to the man who, from humble beginnings, became the nation’s first five-star general and 34th president.”

Last year, nearly 188,000 visitors toured the presidential library and campus to learn more about the life and accomplishments of the small-town boy, who would one day become president. The library, she said, not only offers a closer look into Eisenhower’s life, but provides insight in to the country’s history at that time.

“As a historian and educator, I believe that in order to be responsible citizens, it is imperative that we know about our nation’s past in order to understand our present and prepare for the future,” Sanfilippo said. “Visiting the places where those who helped to shape our history grew up, and seeing the documents and objects created and used by those individuals, informs and inspires. Whether you’re interested in military history, the presidency, or just enjoy looking at social and cultural artifacts from earlier times, the Eisenhower Presidential Library offers something for everyone to see and learn from. As a result, each of us can find relevance in our own lives that helps make us better citizens.”

Sanfilippo admits she has a passion for history. So asking her to name her favorite exhibit is difficult.

“I really enjoy more of the social and cultural aspects - how the times, places and people influenced Ike: from his family and friends in Abilene, his experiences and travels while in the Army, his wife, Mamie, to what was going on during his presidency,” she said. “These things tell me more about Eisenhower as a person, and why he was, and is, so respected and liked.”

After taking the job at the presidential library a few years ago, Sanfilippo began reading up on Eisenhower in preparation for her new role. It didn’t take her long to realize her earlier impressions of the late-president were all wrong.

“Like many people, my perceptions of Eisenhower were based mostly on high school and college textbooks, or through popular culture, especially movies,” she said. “While I knew of and admired his accomplishments during World War II, I held the common belief that he was not very effective as president - he spent more time golfing than working. This misperception was quickly dispelled as I began reading in preparation for starting my work, and it became more evident once I arrived on the job. His accomplishments as president range from starting NASA to developing the interstate highway system; from keeping the Cold War ‘cold’ to initiating governmental policies designed to help America’s farmers, to name just a few.”

Sanfilippo said she was also surprised to learn how strongly Eisenhower supported civil rights and ensuring all students had a right to an education.

“His decision to send federal troops to protect the Little Rock Nine during the Central High School integration crisis in 1957, and ensure their right to education highlighted his strong com - mitment to equality under the law,” she said. “Reading and watching his nationally televised speech made me aware of his clear understanding of the Constitution, its separation of powers and states’ rights, and his responsibility as head of the executive branch of the government to ensure federal laws were enforced. No other president since Ulysses S. Grant, (who) left office in 1877, worked so diligently and successfully to defend the rights of all citizens, regardless of race .”

While the presidential library attracts thousands of visitors year-round to tour the campus, including nearly 7,000 students last school year alone, it also offers added activities and events most days of the year.

“We work with many partners throughout Abilene, and Kansas, to host events that range from book talks and town halls to concerts, receptions, performances and movies,” Sanfilippo said. “Our most popular event is the Symphony at Sunset Annual D-Day Commemorative Concert held on the first Saturday of June. This event features a performance by the Salina Symphony at sunset. Prior to the free concert, kids can enjoy face-painting and sidewalk chalk art, food vendors offer a variety of meals, desserts and drinks, visitors can enjoy a Pop-Up Museum and the Commanding General’s Mounted Color Guard demonstration, and the 1st Infantry Division Band performs a variety of patriotic and popular music. The library is not simply a place for academics and scholarly research - there really is something for everyone.”

*For more information, go to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home website at www.eisenhower.archives.gov, or find them on social media channels @IkeLibrary on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

Jennifer McDaniel is a veteran journalist with nearly 20 years experience covering a broad range of topics. She has worked as a reporter and editor for the Osawatomie Graphic, the Lincoln Sentinel-Republican, and the Chapman & Enterprise News-Times, as well as several other specialty publications.

Take a look back at the complete 2016 football preview here: