Throughout his career, former Kansas State University president Milton Eisenhower gained national recognition for his work in government and higher education. While at K-State he introduced the liberal arts program and played a key role in breaking down the color barrier both on the campus and in the Big Seven Conference. Later, he received the K-State Alumni Association’s prestigious Alumni Medallion award for his contributions to his university, state, country and for improving the welfare of humankind worldwide.
Eisenhower, the youngest of six sons of David and Ida Eisenhower was born in Abilene in 1899 and enrolled at Kansas State Agricultural College in 1919 after nearly dying of influenza in the epidemic of 1918.
He joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity (my old frat) and was editor of the student newspaper. His fraternity brother, Jack Eaton, had a very popular sister and campus favorite named Helen and it wasn’t long until she and Milton started dating. Jack and Helen’s father, Leroy Eakin, was a self-made millionaire and local Manhattan businessman.
Eisenhower graduated in 1924 and had accepted a position to teach English and journalism at K-State, but was offered a job in the U.S Foreign Service. His mentor, William Jardine, president of K-State encouraged him to take the job and Eisenhower spent the next two years in Scotland.
Jardine later became Secretary of Agriculture and hired Eisenhower to serve under him in 1926. The job offer had an added bonus attached because his fiancée, Helen Eakin, was living in Washington D.C. with her parents and soon they were married. They had a son Milton Jr., born in 1930, and a daughter, Ruth, born in 1938.
In his career as a Washington bureaucrat, Eisenhower became so successful in knowing what to do in any situation that four months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt asked him to become the Director of The War Relocation authority to relocate the west coast Japanese Americans.
His decision to accept the assignment from his President troubled him throughout the remainder of his career. Eisenhower wrote to his former boss, Secretary of Agriculture Claude Wickard, and said, “When the war is over and we consider calmly this unprecedented migration of 120,000 people, we as Americans are going to regret the unavoidable injustices that we may have done.”
Eisenhower only lasted three months into the job — from March of 1942 to June 1942 — and resigned because he was opposed to the mass incarceration. He returned to the Office of War information, but only briefly, before accepting the presidency of K-State in mid 1943.
In his inaugural address at K-State, Eisenhower declared, “Our concern is the education of men and women determined to be free.” His ultimate goal was “to create a new American-one who had the ability and the educational background and the desire to formulate sound and creative judgments on world affairs and to take part in the world in which the United States had to be the leader.”
Eisenhower stressed the liberal arts, and it was only fitting that later Eisenhower Hall was built and named in his honor, as it houses the College of Arts and Sciences on the K-State campus.
Photo: courtesy of KSU Alumni Association L to R Eisenhower family at Kansas State
While at K-State, he started the Endowment Association (now called the KSU Foundation) on Feb. 3, 1944. But his biggest achievement was breaking down the color barrier within the university community, including Manhattan, and even more notably the Big Seven Conference.
Stephen E. Ambrose and Richard H. Immerman published their book, “Milton Eisenhower, Educational Statesman” in 1983. Chapter seven describes what it was like in Manhattan when Eisenhower arrived in 1943, using a quote in the book from historian Ken Davis who grew up in Manhattan. Davis said, “There wasn’t even a place in town where a black could get a haircut. The cafes and soda fountains on the edge of the Kansas State campus would not serve blacks, nor were the 150 or so black students welcome in the student cafeteria.”
Eisenhower chose the subtle path to bring about integration of the African American students on campus by having one-on-one conversations with students, faculty and athletic department administrators. Ambrose and Immerman wrote, “Eisenhower asked the student council president, “Do you folks care if the black students swim with the whites?” Somewhat startled, the unsuspecting student sat silent for a moment. Then he replied, as if with a shrug, that he did not think the student body cared very much one way or another.”
Milton & Ike -1947 (photo courtesy of KSU Alumni Association)
Eisenhower didn’t waste any time and soon the pool was available to all students. Ambrose and Immerman continued, “In the meantime, Eisenhower called the director of athletics to tell him to let black students swim. When the director objected, the Kansas State president let him know in no uncertain terms that his opinion was not being solicited. The blacks started swimming.”
Ambrose and Immerman wrote, “Acting on another Eisenhower suggestion, the student council, this time with the athletic director’s full cooperation, voted to include blacks in the college’s intramural program. Their participation caused scarcely a ripple.”
The book continues to explain that Eisenhower helped, “halt the practice of segregated seating at the local movie theater. In 1949, he also persuaded the athletic director to give scholarships to blacks. The presidents at Oklahoma and Missouri protested. They notified Eisenhower that whatever the K-State policy was concerning its own students was its business, but they were not going to let their athletes compete on the same field with blacks.”
The authors wrote, “Eisenhower said that he would instruct the athletic director to schedule contests outside the conference. The two presidents proffered a compromise: they would have no objection to blacks playing in games played in Manhattan, on the condition that when K-State visited their respective institutions the blacks would not travel with the team. Eisenhower would make no promises, and when K-State went to play at Oklahoma and Missouri, there were blacks in the starting lineup. As Eisenhower put it, “They played and that was the end of it.”
Eisenhower, who was described by his brother Ike as “the brightest member of our family,” left his alma mater in 1950 to become the President of Penn State University. It was during this time (1953-61) that he became part of the oval office kitchen cabinet and close advisor to President Eisenhower.
His wife Helen died from cancer in 1955 and Eisenhower accepted the presidency at Johns Hopkins University in 1956. Eisenhower retired from Johns Hopkins in 1967, but later was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to chair the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence following the assassination of the Martin Luther King in 1968.
In 1969, the Johns Hopkins trustees called him back to serve as interim president for one year and then he retired and began to write his memoirs, most notably, “The President is Calling” (1973), where he advocated that the president have a line-item veto and a single six-year term.
He concluded that, “compromise was essential to human existence.” Quoting Edmund Burke, Eisenhower declared, “All government-indeed every human benefit, every virtue and every prudent act-is founded on compromise and barter.” Too bad our members of congress are doing just the opposite.
In 1984, when I served as Executive Director of the K-State Alumni Association, I had the honor of presenting him with the Alumni Medallion award. This award is heavily based on humanitarian service. Only 52 alumni have received the award since its inception in 1969.
When I invited Eisenhower to return to campus to receive the award during commencement exercises in May of 1983, he told me he was unable to travel, but I was more than welcome to visit him in Baltimore.
We planned an alumni event in Washington D.C. during March of 1984 and the next day I took my family with me to meet him for lunch at his penthouse high-rise apartment on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The Johns Hopkins library is named after him and the students refer to it as the “Milton Hilton.”
We took the elevator to the top floor and his house assistant met us at the door. We entered a hallway and saw two beautiful original oil paintings — one painted by his brother Dwight and the other one painted by Milton. Both were avid painters.
Eisenhower gave us a big warm welcome and asked us to join him at a long formal dining table. Our daughter Molly was 11 and son Nick was 13. I don’t think they realized the significance of the visit at the time, but they were quite impressed when Eisenhower rang a bell and out came the first course, as our salads were delivered to us by his maid.
He rang the bell again, and out came the main course. He asked all about K-State and after a brief update, he shared many of his personal experiences with us. He spoke about his role as advisor to his brother and how he was delivered to the White House by helicopter for meetings when he was president of Penn State.
He shared his travels in South America when he was there for the President and other trips he took around the world. We finally got around to the dark side of his career when we discussed his role in relocating Japanese Americans during the war.
He said that was by far the most disappointing and traumatic episode of his career. As I remember, Eisenhower said he initially accepted the role as director thinking the camps to house the Japanese Americans would be set up like homesteads in the middle of the country, but there was much opposition by the governors from these interior states.
These governors were worried about security issues and didn’t think the plan would work, so the worst-case scenario was enacted and most of the camps were set up on remote Native American lands where life was rather difficult.
He described his first three months on the job as a nightmare since he traveled back and forth from Washington to San Francisco on a weekly basis and finally resigned.
Another ring of the bell, and out came the dessert, as we switched to another topic. I can’t remember what else we discussed, but it felt like we were sitting in a time machine listening to a narrator who helped shape our nation’s history. During a 47-year span, Eisenhower worked in one capacity or another for every President from Coolidge to Nixon.
Finally, it was time for pictures and a send off by our gracious host. Eisenhower received an honorary doctorate degree from K-State in 1963 and I’m so pleased that our alumni board’s selection committee had the foresight to present the alumni award when they did because he died 14 months later on May 2, 1985.
Eisenhower was truly one of K-State’s most distinguished graduates who exemplified his own vision to “create a new American who would take part in the world in which the United States had to be the leader.” He certainly did his part to lead the way. Our brief acquaintance left a lasting impression. Just for fun, I was tempted to purchase a dinner bell for my wife Kay. but never did.