Curator to retire after 41 years of presidential collecting, dusting

SALINA — Four decades ago, Dennis Medina's knowledge of Dwight Eisenhower comprised watching his 1953 inaugural festivities on television and reading newspaper stories about his presidential visits to Colorado, where Medina lived at the time.

Medina will retire next month as the curator of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum knowing much more about the 34th president.

"I had to do a lot of reading," said Medina, who started work at the Abilene facility in 1969.

Before that, he was the exhibits director for the Colorado State Historical Society and wasn't looking for a job, particularly in Kansas.

"I wasn't really interested," Medina said. "That year, the governor cut the budget and I had a lot of projects that got shelved."

Suddenly, a job change seemed more appealing.

"I met my former boss (of the Eisenhower Library) at that time at a museum meeting. He offered me a job, and I turned it down."

Medina called back later and asked if the museum job was still open. It was.

"I was only going to stay five years," he said of the Abilene posting. "And here we are, 41 years later."

"I loved the collection, the exhibit work," Medina said of his reasons for staying. "The Eisenhower family has been good to me over the years. And the local people. They are all very friendly, very interested in what's going on at the museum. They're great supporters of our public programs."

Medina said he chose his profession because of his fascination with objects.

"I get to hold history in my hands," he said.

Besides handling — with protective gloves — the museum's holdings, Medina over the years has come face to face with countless national and foreign dignitaries. He said the encounters are among the most memorable of his experiences.

"Meeting some of the people who were very important in American politics and the military, having that ability to take them on a tour of the Eisenhower legacy," he said.

Moving from a state job to one administered by the National Archives and Records Administration wasn't that different, once he familiarized himself with the subject.

"There, you're dealing with a broader range of history," he said. "Here, we're dealing with one individual."

That didn't stop Medina from expanding the collection.

"We're fortunate that Eisenhower was a complex individual. He had lots of careers. He was a military man, an artist, sportsman, educator — he was president of Columbia University. All those careers."

Although Medina jokingly describes himself as the "head duster," his job is more involved than caring for a here-it-is-come-see-it static display.

The collection doubled during Medina's tenure, and he's directed educational outreach programs.

"We have over 26 million pages of manuscripts, we have close to 77,000 artifacts associated with the Eisenhower legacy," he said.

The collection is not complete, and may never be.

"There are a few diaries written by Eisenhower that are still out there," he said. "Also, papers from associates, cabinet members, we don't have."

Some gifts Eisenhower received during his presidency also are in the wind.

A law passed in 1963 requires that all presidential gifts become property of the government. Presidents can buy them at the appraised market value, but during Eisenhower's day, gifts from foreign leaders, countries and constituents were his to keep. Or give away, as he did with a painting of the White House by American impressionist Guy Wiggins.

"That was given to one of the staff members in the administration," Medina said. "He was told to keep something from the office, and he selected that painting."

Medina and his staff are in negotiations with the man's estate to acquire the work.

Some artifacts have been retained by the Eisenhower family, and some the Eisenhowers disposed of. The Eisenhowers gave away "quite a few" items from their Gettysburg, Pa., farm, Medina said. "Like Persian rugs. We're not sure what happened to all of those."

Medina never met the president, but had a working relationship with his wife, Mamie Eisenhower.

"She was very generous to the museum. She gave us lots of personal things," he said. "She had a deep interest in the museum. She came here once a year, sometimes twice a year."

He said he would have liked to have met President Eisenhower, who passed away March 28, 1969.

"I started the day he died."