By Rita Maisel
In the days following the announcement of the death of President George H. W. Bush, my mind filled with thoughts of the funerals of other presidents in our lifetimes, and several others added similar information. On a different note one former Langdon resident sent an email including some of President Ronald Reagan’s best remembered jokes. Reagan may ultimately be remembered by some as possibly having one of the best senses of humor of recent politicians. A story that struck a chord with me was President Reagan recounting how his advanced age was a source of humor for Congress, his cabinet and many others. He did not claim to have known George Washington personally but listed Thomas Jefferson as a good friend. After a few people suggested that I do a column on long ago presidents, it was necessary to begin with a disclaimer. If they did not live in my lifetime, I really have no memory of them.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was already in office when I was born, but even as a small child I sat in the living room with family members when his familiar voice was on the radio with his fireside chats. It was a different era to grow up in, and our view of our nation’s president has changed over the years. We remember the calm voice of President Roosevelt on December 8, 1941, relating the details of the attack on Pearl Harbor and declaring the date as one that will live in infamy, which it has. That day was followed shortly by memories of attending a community memorial service for Charlie Borusky and Jimmy Krahn, who both died at Pearl Harbor. The memorial was held at the Langdon Auditorium, and any number reading this column were also there. The war years with black-outs, buying bonds and stamps, rationing and so on are also well remembered although long past.
Another memory began on what must have been a Thursday afternoon in April of 1945. School had been dismissed for the Easter holiday, and before going home I had gone back into the classroom to pick up something from my desk. Another teacher came into the room and since children were invisible to after-hours teachers, informed our teacher that President Roosevelt had died that day. My own errand in that room forgotten, I raced home in shock to find family members listening to the details on the radio. On what might have been the following Monday, designated as a day of mourning, our family and hosts of others gathered again at the Auditorium for an ecumenical service in honor of President Roosevelt. There was no state funeral or procession at that time since we were still at war. It was felt that a state funeral and procession would be unseemly while military personnel were dying daily. We believe similar ceremonies were held across the nation to honor the passing of our president.
President Truman was next in office and became famous for his salty language, statements like “The Buck Stops Here,” and his daughter, Margaret. Truman’s plain-speaking is echoed in the murder novels penned by his daughter in later years. Because of needed repairs to the White House following the war years, the Trumans lived in another house nearby. He was remembered for walking to work and, after they retired to Independence, Missouri, for walking daily until he was in his 90s.
General Eisenhower followed Truman as President. Fresh from directing activities in the Europe, he had moved over to head NATO and is remembered as sending NATO planes to Indo-China with resulting casualties like Dien Bein Phu. The far-away nation split into North and South Viet Nam with a few years lull in battles before heating up again. Meanwhile President Eisenhower headed up a new agency called NORAD, built interstate highways, bunkers and bomb shelters, and turned golf into the favorite game of country clubs around the world. He retired and was followed in office by President Kennedy.
The presidential Kennedy family referred to their life as Camelot. Families all around the world were charmed and named their children after Jackie, little Carolyn and John Jr. There was the Cuban Missile Crisis and sad events surfaced in the Civil Rights movement. Then came the fatal November day when shots rang out from a grassy mound ,and President Kennedy died. In my memory we got the news while sitting at the lunch table at school that Friday. The Denver school where I worked became unreal that afternoon as parents raced to claim their children from an elementary school holding nearly 2,000 students. A question often heard was “will we have to be Russian now?” In the Cold War Russia was always the enemy. Many homes had television, and we watched the procession from Dallas over and over. Even though the sets were black and white, we knew that Jackie Kennedy wore a pink suit and pillbox hat! On what must have been Sunday, we came home to see police officers taking Lee Harvey Oswald across the room and Jack Ruby seeming to appear out of nowhere and shooting him. The day of mourning was probably Monday and no school. Along with friends and neighbors we lived in front of the television. Two year old Anne (now a grandmother) demanded that we “make them stop the drum”. If you have seen re-runs you know that drum corps accompanied the caisson as the procession moved up and down the streets. Walking behind the immediate family were the leaders of the world: Prince Phillip, Haile Sailasse, Charles De Gaule and Russian leaders among others.
Kennedy’s funeral was the first on television and thought to be the first formal Presidential funeral since the one held for Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Lincoln went by train from his Washington funeral to Illinois for burial, stopping at town after town so mourners could pay their respects. Kennedy was buried at Arlington, and his grave is marked by an eternal flame which many have visited in the years that have passed. Many of the traditions now observed at state funerals began that day including the procession of world leaders, the riderless horse with “Black Jack” the best remembered, the military bands with all branches taking part, favorite songs of the President and the era and the reading of poems by favorite poets. We are told Congress gets to choose the speakers and all living past presidents sit together in a special area.
President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in on the airplane returning from Texas to finish the last few months of that term and a term of his own. It was an era marked by Civil Rights confrontations, a war on poverty, the birth of Medicare and a continuation of the second half of the battles in Viet Nam. Day after day the war played out in living color on the televisions in our living rooms. Meanwhile Mrs. Johnson tried her best to beautify America, and many of the gardens she inspired are still doing their best. Seeming to be worn out by the pressures of the oval office, the Johnsons retired to their ranch in Texas.
And then, it was Nixon’s turn. He had been Eisenhower’s vice president, and his daughter was married to an Eisenhower grandson so political views were colored by that association. Vietnam was then a quagmire and, in retrospect, it is possible his best contribution was pulling the troops out and bringing them home. However, others remember him best as the president who spoke to the astronauts on the moon! As it happens, there were other troubles in the oval office. There is a vague memory of the Oliver North trial, the resignations of Rockefeller and someone else, and then when Watergate spiraled out of control, Nixon himself resigned.
That brought Gerald Ford into the presidency. Remembered as a good sport over criticism of his golfing problems, he served only a short term and then lost the election to Jimmy Carter, known as a peanut farmer from Georgia. Like several before them, both Ford and Carter were better appreciated by Americans after they left the White House. At this point my list may be out of order, but I believe Reagan was next followed by George H. W. Bush, then Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump. A major reason for shortening the comments is that by this time, some of the several living presidents had began to die.
Eisenhower died in 1969, again, just before Easter or spring break. His death came from a heart ailment and was not unexpected. Relatives in California had invited me to come for the long weekend which then included the days of mourning so the vacation was partly spent watching the formal funeral services. Early in the 1970s both President Johnson and President Truman died, one the day after Christmas and the other early in January. Their funerals were watched on television as snow fell around us in North Dakota. Both were buried at locations near their presidential libraries in Texas and Missouri.
Former President Nixon might have been next. He did not have a state funeral since he had resigned the office, but services were held at several locations, and he is buried near his library in California. The Reagans had retired to California as well, and in later years he suffered from Alzheimer’s. He is buried in California, but there are memories of a formal state funeral in Washington and rows of former presidents in attendance. There was also a special service for President Reagan held in Langdon, North Dakota, at the Brooks Funeral Home where memorabilia from his life was displayed, music played, and I believe most Langdon residents stopped in during the day to sign the guest book which was to be forwarded to his library and to pick up a special funeral bulletin provided for the occasion. Whether this was done at many sites or the idea originated with the Brooks family at that time is not known, but it was a touch that many local visitors appreciated.
While several of the past presidents have had health issues and President Carter has battled cancer for some time, President Ford’s death was the most recent and that was several years ago. He was the only one mentioned who had a separate service at the House of Representatives, a body where he originally served when first coming to Washington. A native of Michigan, President Ford is buried near his library in that state.
Thanks to everyone who has shared their memories of presidents we remember.