An Afternoon with Ike: Eisenhower on Campus One-Half Century Ago
By Sam Starnes
More than three decades before he would achieve the rank of four-star general, John Tilelli, who grew up on a farm in New Jersey, shook the hand of Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of only five men ever named a five-star general in America’s history. The handshake came when “Ike,” as the two-term former commander-in-chief was commonly known, visited Pennsylvania Military College on the Friday before the 1963 commencement for a luncheon in his honor, a military review of the cadets, a ceremony in which he bestowed awards, and a reception. "In my wildest dreams as a young man, I never dreamed I would get that close to a president," said Tilelli, a 1963 PMC graduate who was awarded an honorary doctorate from Widener in 1996.
As he prepared to graduate from PMC that weekend, Tilelli was bound for military service, but said he did not aspire to make a career of the Army until ten years later. He ultimately was named a four-star general in 1994, becoming the highest-ranking graduate from PMC and Widener. While serving as a general and working in the Pentagon, Tilelli went on to meet other presidents. He worked as a commander in the first Gulf War for President George H.W. Bush, whom he refers to as "Bush 41," and he later served in the Pentagon under President Bill Clinton. Although Tilelli retired in 1999 before President George W. Bush took office, he also worked with "Bush 43" when he served as president and CEO of the United Service Organization (USO.)
Almost fifty years later, looking back on his first meeting with a president, Tilelli, now chairman and CEO of Cypress International and vice chair of Widener's Board of Trustees, remembers it as a landmark event for the class of 1963 that pointed its graduates on a path toward success. "It set the final values and allowed us to come to where we are today," he said.
The Sharples Connection
The origin of Eisenhower's visit to PMC began the previous year with a letter from Philip T. Sharples. Sharples, a businessman, aviation pioneer, and an active Republican fundraiser, was the brother of the PMC chairman of the Board of Trustees, Laurence P. Sharples, then a vice president in the thriving family business and also an aviation innovator. In December 1962, Brigadier Gen. Robert Schultz, aide to Eisenhower, responded to Philip Sharples's request of the president. "He is presently in Georgia but read your letter while in enroute from New York to Augusta and has asked me to advise you that he will take the review late in May," Schultz wrote. (Eisenhower was a frequent visitor to the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia where the Masters tournament is played.) After the invitation to visit campus was accepted, President Moll appealed to Eisenhower's widely known love of golf—one history of Eisenhower indicates that he played about 800 rounds of golf in the eight years that he was president—in a letter to Schultz in February 1963. "Appreciating the General's fondness for golf," Moll wrote, "we would be most pleased to arrange a foursome for him at the Springhaven Club in Wallingford, less than 10 minutes from here." Eisenhower, however, did not take Moll up on his offer.
Although Eisenhower is arguably the most significant historical figure ever to visit Widener or PMC, the college in this period was quite accustomed to welcoming influential guests to campus and took the event in stride, said Robert Pierpont, a 1954 PMC graduate who at the time of Eisenhower's visit worked in the college's administration as assistant to PMC President Clarence Moll. One challenge Eisenhower's visit posed was where to serve the lunch to the president and about two dozen select guests. "We had no good place to have a nice meal for that many people who would all want to be seated at the same table with the president," Pierpont said.
He said the solution was a large, temporary table of plywood built in the lobby of Alumni Auditorium, at the time a two-year-old building. A copy of PMC's budget for "Eisenhower Day" indicates the "special table" cost $50 to build. According to a planning menu, the entrees served on that table were a choice of "Lobster Newberg in Patty shell OR Filet Mignon." An earlier suggested menu had proposed "Frog legs & Crab Meat in Casserole on Melba Toast," but like the offer of a round golf, that entrée didn't make the final cut.
Eisenhower and Geoghegan
The late spring day of Eisenhower's visit offered a clear blue sky with a low in the
high fifties rising to the high seventies. Barbara Geoghegan Johns, then a junior
at Beaver College (now Arcadia College) in Glenside, Pa., said that her future husband,
John Lance "Jack" Geoghegan, a senior at PMC and the class president, drove from PMC
to pick her up that morning to attend the Eisenhower review. It would be one of their
very first dates.
Eisenhower, at the time 72, and two-and-a-half years after leaving the White House, arrived at noon in a car driven by his aide. Wearing a dark blue suit and tie and a gray fedora, he was greeted at the front entrance to Old Main by an honor guard and President Moll and Maj. Gen. William Shepard Biddle, PMC's commandant of cadets, who escorted him to Alumni Auditorium. Biddle, according to the Delaware County Daily Times, was an "old friend" who had served under Eisenhower in World War II.
After the lunch but before the review and awards ceremony, Pierpont joined Eisenhower, Moll, and others who adjourned for a break in the Tumbleston Room, a lounge area that is now the PMC Museum. Eisenhower, as others remarked, was very gracious. "He was generally a nice, polite guy," Pierpont said. "You would never know that he had been the commanding officer who won the war—and had been president."
Jack Geoghegan had arranged for Barbara Geoghegan Johns to sit in the bleachers for the review on what was then the football field behind Old Main. The stands were packed, and included some students from nearby Stetser School, with whom Eisenhower chatted. Jack Geoghegan had not told Barbara of the high-profile role he would play in the ceremony: Serving as the cadet escort for Eisenhower during the parade and review, and presenting the president with a silver sabre and reading a short statement making him the first honorary captain in the history of the school.
When the military parade began with Jack Geoghegan by Eisenhower's side, an entrance that included the president standing at attention for a 21-gun salute, Barbara Geoghegan Johns told those in the stands with her that she could not tell which one Jack was—all cadets had donned formal military dress uniforms with hats that featured a strap worn beneath the nose. "They told me, 'He's the one with the president,'" she said. "I remember what a strange feeling it was watching them walk together."
Geoghegan then rode standing in the front of an Army Jeep while Eisenhower and Laurence Sharples stood in the back as the cadet band played. Geoghegan later presented Eisenhower with a silver sabre and a plaque, making these comments:
"Sir, this sabre is a symbol of leadership within the Corps of Cadets. It carries also with it a willingness to fight and die for our country, that you were so willing to do yourself. It finally carries responsibility. A responsibility that you as general and statesman were all too willing to exercise. Upon your decisions has rested the fact that we are free rather than captive Americans."
After Geoghegan's presentation, Eisenhower made brief remarks to the crowd. "I assure you," said Eisenhower, a 1912 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, "I did not attain the rank of first captain at West Point."
Eisenhower presented awards to nine cadets, including Geoghegan who took the top honor with the Francis M. Taitt Prize, designated for an outstanding soldier and gentleman with the neatest appearance in the cadet corps. "He was truly honored that Eisenhower came," Barbara Geoghegan Johns said. "He was very happy to be the person escorting him."
David Oskin '64, '07H, a junior at the time, received the Lt. J. William Wolfgram Memorial Medal given to the most soldierly cadet. Oskin does not remember precisely what Eisenhower said, only that he was very warm and courteous while Oskin himself was quite nervous. "I just wanted to make sure that my knees didn't buckle," said Oskin, a member of Widener's Board of Trustees who served as the board's chairman for nine years. "I was absolutely spellbound and elated. He was a general and president I had read about in books for years. It was very special to have someone like Ike put the award on your chest. It is one of the things in life that you don't forget. I felt very proud of my college that day."
David McNulty, secretary of the class of 1963 and editor of that year's Sabre & Sash–the PMC annual–was excited about Eisenhower's visit because copies of the yearbook he had labored to compile and edit had arrived only two days prior. Biddle agreed to give McNulty and his friend B. David Lake, president elect of student council for the rising senior class, time to present Eisenhower with the yearbook. With McNulty's family, fiancé, and others looking on, he and Lake shook his hand and spoke briefly with Eisenhower while standing outside the Biddle residence on 14th Street. McNulty said the historical significance of the moment resonated deeply. "We met and got our pictures taken with the Supreme Allied Commander of World War II, the man who ordered the D-Day invasion and achieved victory in Europe, the president of the United States, the man who put the words 'under God' in our nation's pledge of allegiance," McNulty said. "It was a day that we all would cherish as a milestone in our lives forever."
After a short reception back in Alumni Auditorium, Pierpont remembers Eisenhower leaving with very little fanfare. Unlike modern presidential visits that feature a heavy police presence, security was minimal. "There was no Secret Service with him," Pierpont said. Nor was there a motorcade. "I distinctly remember his driving off with the aide back to Gettysburg. As far as I can remember, they were the only two people in the car."
The Cusp of Great Change
The time of Eisenhower's visit came on the cusp of much great change in the college
and in the country. "In June of 1963, we couldn't even spell Vietnam," said McNulty,
who, like Tilelli, was commissioned into the Army that weekend. "It was the end of
That November, President Kennedy would be assassinated, and into the mid-1960s, the Vietnam War would escalate. Eisenhower visited PMC again in 1965, speaking to freshmen and to the Greater Chester dinner held on campus. He died in 1969. Nine years after his first visit and three years after his death, Pennsylvania Military College and Penn Morton College would become Widener College.
The coming years also brought much personal change for the class of 1963. Jack Geoghegan and Barbara Geoghegan Johns were married after her graduation in June 1964. After a year serving with the Catholic Relief Services in Africa, they had a child, Camille, in June 1965. Jack Geoghegan, who was commissioned in 1963 but had a two-year wait before serving, soon shipped off to Vietnam and was killed in the battle of Ia Drang in November 1965. The 1992 book, We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, tells the story of the battle in which he was killed (actor Chris Klein portrayed Geoghegan in the 2002 movie based on the book). Widener's John L. Geoghegan Student Citizenship Award is given annually for academic achievement, leadership, and community service. Keeping Geoghegan's memory alive at Widener has been important to McNulty, a close friend of Geoghegan. "Jack was a great guy," McNulty said. "He could have been president."
David Oskin, who in the years following served in Vietnam and then went on to a very successful business career, said the leadership exemplified by Eisenhower should be studied. "When I think of Ike, I think of leadership," said Oskin, for whom Widener's Oskin Leadership Institute is named. "He showed character and courage."
Tilelli also concurred with the leadership qualities of Eisenhower. "Your leaders in essence are a patchwork quilt of people you look up to," Tilelli said. "His style of leadership is an excellent one to emulate for young people."
Looking back, Tilelli said it is remarkable how fast half a century can pass. "Fifty years went by in a blink of an eye," he said. "Time goes a lot quicker than one might hope." But he said those years have been good to the place he calls his undergraduate alma mater and has continued to serve as a trustee. "The college changed to a magnificent university," Tilelli said. "It was a great college at that time. It's now a great university with the right mission and the right goals—supporting global and community leadership."