It was a cloudy day on the Kansas State campus the morning of Sept. 16, 1970 when those of us sitting in Ahearn Field House heard the roaring engines of a helicopter landing just north of the basketball facility on the ROTC practice field — the site where Durland Hall now stands.
President Richard Nixon was arriving to give a speech. Nixon and his wife Pat were greeted by former Kansas governor and 1936 presidential candidate Alf Landon and his wife Theo, along with Kansas Governor Docking and his wife Meredith.
I was among the 16,000 waiting for the President to deliver his Landon Lecture. The week before, the campus received visits from the secret service, and the day of Nixon’s arrival, we had to vacate our offices in the west wing of Ahearn to make way for Nixon’s body guards and their arsenal of heavy weapons as they set up a command post in the wrestling room on the third floor.
I was an assistant basketball coach working for head coach Jack Hartman then, and was assigned to be a driver for Russell native, senator Bob Dole, after the event.
Nixon was on the hot seat over the Vietnam War as mass protests took place on college campuses throughout America earlier that year. To make matters worse, his image among college students suffered greatly when poorly trained National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State on May 4, 1970.
The Kent State tragedy ignited a nationwide campus disaster. Between May 4 and May 8, campuses experienced an average of 100 demonstrations a day, 350 campus strikes, 536 colleges shut down and 73 colleges reported significant violence in their protests. On that weekend, 100,000 people gathered to protest in Washington D.C., and by May 12, over 150 colleges were on strike.
But there was calm among the nation’s Vietnam protesters before Nixon’s arrival. The antiwar movement was winding down and Nixon’s image was improving. He traveled to K-State in search of a friendly audience and got what he wanted.
Ahearn erupted with a deafening noise when Nixon appeared after waiting in the men’s basketball dressing room prior to his entrance. He made reference to his wait, and noted, “It is nice to be in a room with a winner, believe me,” as the crowd went wild with applause.
Then he explained why he was wearing a purple and white tie.
“As we were flying out to Kansas on Air Force One, Senator Pearson, Senator Dole, the Members of the Congressional Delegation, and others presented this tie to me and said you must wear it when you speak at Kansas State.”
The crowd went nuts again.
Knowing the history of the K-State student population with polite and courteous Midwest values, I believe Nixon was looking for a public relations victory to improve his faltering image by tapping in on some of our Purple Power positive attitude juice that we got from former football coach Vince Gibson a few years earlier.
“As some of you may have noted, I am somewhat of a football buff,” Nixon said. “Just three years ago, the Wildcats had a dismal seven-year record of eight wins and 60 losses. But there was a dogged spirit here, a determination, a readiness to learn new ways — and when Vince Gibson came to campus it was that spirit, that determination, that “Purple Pride” that he helped translate into “Purple Power” of today.”
Another eruption of applause came from the crowd.
His speech was entitled, “It’s time to stand up and be counted.”
And this time, about 35 protesters sitting in the upper east balcony of Ahearn thought it was time for them to stand up and be counted as they jeered Nixon about the Vietnam conflict.
Former faculty member and historian Stephen Ambrose’s wife was among the protesters and obviously she may have known creepy things about Nixon none of the rest of us knew at the time.
The protesters incensed the crowd and the more they tried to disrupt Nixon’s speech the crowd got louder and louder giving Nixon standing ovations whenever it seemed appropriate. I was right there cheering on Nixon like the majority in attendance because I thought we should show respect for the Office of the President.
I didn’t remember what he said during his speech, so I recently read a transcript. In a nutshell, he used metaphors of Landon’s failed bid for the presidency, his own lessons of defeat in 1960 and 1962, and a losing record in K-State football as the basis for inspiration to give it “another try.”
Nixon spoke about the “acts of viciousness that took place in the United States in the last five weeks,” and that “violence and terror have no place in our society,” citing the “bombing at the University of Wisconsin recently.”
He spoke of the recent violence on college campuses and said “higher education risks losing the support of the American people.”
He told the audience that the “quality of education is threatened.” He said, “the voices of the small minority have been allowed to drown out the responsible majority and that may be true in some places, but not at Kansas State.”
We roared with approval.
It’s ironic that Nixon made a big point of “Defending the Pursuit of Truth” when he said, “It requires that the members of the academic community to rise firmly in defense of the free pursuit of truth, that they defend it as zealously today against threats from within as they have defended it in the past against threats from without.”
I wonder if faculty member Stephen Ambrose was thinking, “yes, that’s why my wife is in the audience protesting and trying to defend the truth about Vietnam since Nixon wasn’t telling us the truth.” And what about threats to our democracy from within the oval office leading up to Watergate? Holy cow! Nixon’s words about truth mean nothing now.
I was able to confirm from a former Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Bill Stamey, soon to be 91 in October, who was in attendance 43 years ago, and still living in Manhattan that he remembers Mrs. Ambrose as the one who “was a vigorous vocal protesting participant who created a disturbance,” as Nixon gave his speech. Bill remembers that President James McCain didn’t like anything happening like the Ambrose incident, and neither of us knows for sure what happened afterwards, but the Ambroses were gone the next year.
Stephen Ambrose, who became a nationally known historian who has published many books, returned to K-State on Oct. 25, 1988 to deliver a lecture on Nixon and Vietnam. Ambrose concluded, “Nearly all the names on the left side of the Vietnam Wall in Washington commemorate men who died in action while Richard Nixon was their commander in chief, and they died after he decided that the war could not be won.”
And then Nixon gave us the old “Heart of America” closing, telling us “I can truly say to you here today, you are the heart of America, and the heart of America is strong.”
Nixon showered us with praise.
I think many of us felt like the guy who once defined the word praise as “something each of us had suspected all along for quite a while.” That was it. He gave us the “Tricky Dick” high sign and headed for the exit to his waiting helicopter, which lifted him off to a waiting Air force One at Forbes Field in Topeka.
Many of the dignitaries headed to the K-State Student Union for the luncheon, and I waited outside to take Senator Dole to the Manhattan airport for his flight to Washington. After the lunch, Dole and Congressman Chet Mize of Atchison headed to my waiting car.
I said, “Hello Senator Dole, I’m your driver.” He replied, “Forget the handshakes, let’s get in the car because it’s raining and I’m getting wet.” I obliged and Dole and Mize plopped down in the back seat. They immediately engaged in a lively conversation and Dole talked all the way to the airport to remind Mize he was the one who got the purple tie on Nixon and Mize just smiled and grinned without saying more than a few words.
I forgot that drivers for politicians are supposed to be seen, but not heard and no questions were asked of me throughout the entire ride to the Manhattan airport. Looking back now, I felt a lot like chauffer Morgan Freeman in the movie “Driving Miss Daisy.” Yes sir and no sir were my two words. When we arrived at the airport, they thanked me for the ride and headed to their private plan.
I was feeling good that we gave the President of the United States such a courteous warm welcome, but it wasn’t until his resignation after Watergate in 1974 that I felt like I was duped with deception and lies, but fell for it like the majority who were in attendance.
Nixon’s grasp at attaining “Purple Power” during his K-State visit 43 years ago was short-lived, as he became the first president in American history to resign. He resigned on Aug.8, 1974, following the release of the Watergate tapes and his pending impeachment proceedings that were beginning. America had enough, and it was time for congress to “stand up and be counted.”
I’ve got to tell you quickly about another driver story. I got to pick up Governor Landon one time in Topeka to bring him to a lecture at K-State, and I was warned that he was a notorious bummer of cigarettes. Since I did not smoke, a university official who was assistant to President McCain, Max Milbourn, devised a plan to accommodate the Governor by loaning me a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Around the Paxio exit on the way to Manhattan, Governor Landon said to me, “Sonny, you wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette?”
I had practiced the routine in Milbourn’s office the week before and he taught me how to flip out the pack of Winstons from my shirt pocket so the cigarette would pop out, and I reached over with the lighter and soon the Governor was puffing away as we discussed his run for the Presidency against FDR in 1936 with a smoke filled car. I coughed most of the way.
Driving for dignitaries was not in my job description, but I was available when called, and Nixon’s visit to Ahearn is one memory and Governor Landon bumming a cigarette from me is the other one that still remains.