Nearly half a century after his death, Kansan Dwight D. Eisenhower is about to get national attention again.
Speeches, prayers and shovels will be raised in honor of the 34th president Thursday at a long-awaited groundbreaking for his memorial in Washington, D.C.
It has taken nearly 20 years to debate, fund, argue and approve the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Memorial, which will be constructed near the National Mall at 400 Maryland Ave. S.W. at the foot of Capitol Hill and across the street from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. It is expected to take 30 months to build.
“This memorial is really humbling,” said Merrill Eisenhower Atwater, a great-grandson who is the director of aviation for the Kansas Department of Transportation.
“It is great for Kansas and it is incredible to have a Kansan on the mall... Not many presidents are represented on the mall, so it is really humbling.”
Only a handful of presidents have memorials in Washington, D.C. Eisenhower is in good company — the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.
The Eisenhower National Memorial will feature Eisenhower’s accomplishments as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II and as president.
The four-acre park will have sculptures of Eisenhower as a young adult, talking with troops before the beach landing at Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and as president.
It will include tapestries of steel cables of the beaches of Normandy – considered the moment in history that defined both Eisenhower and the world. And it will have some of his famous quotes, such as his 1945 “Homecoming Speech” in which he proclaimed, “The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.”
The memorial will be interactive with phone apps and wireless technology to guide visitors.
The memorial was designed by Frank Gehry, world renowned architect who designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the New World Center in Miami Beach. Sculptor Sergey Eylanbekov designed several works in consultation with Gehry.
At times, it seemed that the memorial might never be built.
Through the years, his grandchildren have publicly said the design was too fancy, too grandiose and even too idealistic.
Eisenhower was famously frugal.
Some criticized the metal tapestries, saying they wouldn’t hold up over time and cluttered the memorial design.
Over time, the design changed. The original version of the memorial had a tapestry featuring a composite view of Abilene. But some Eisenhower family members said it gave a too-idealized view of Eisenhower’s childhood. In the final version, the tapestry will be of a peacetime view of the beaches of Normandy. The positioning of the sculptures changed to give a sense of Eisenhower’s legacy unfolding throughout his life. The memorial focuses more on his words, his ideas and principles.
Atwater won’t talk about the controversy. He just says that he is excited about the groundbreaking and about celebrating his great-grandfather.
“Our family has deep roots and history in Kansas,” he said. “Ike was a pretty humble person and I think he would want this memorial to give credit to the people of this country for the sacrifices they made.”
‘An uphill march’
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the memorial board, helped secure funding in Congress and helped steer the design through two arts boards that ultimately granted permission for it to be built. He formed an advisory board with all living presidents and key leaders in media, academia and business.
The memorial is expected to cost between $140 million and $150 million, mostly funded by taxpayers with some private donations. So far, $10 million has been raised through private donations; the goal is $25 million from donors.
Congress appropriated $45 million in 2017 for construction. The Memorial Commission estimates it needs about $84 million in federal funding to complete construction. An additional $41 million will be requested in fiscal 2018.
Former U.S. Senator from Kansas Bob Dole is helping to lead fundraising, Roberts said.
“This has been an uphill march to pay tribute to Kansas’ favorite son,” Roberts said. “He has been named the Kansan of the century, he is the story of America and Kansas. It really is long overdue and I’m proud to see this project across the finish line.”
Roberts said many Americans have either forgotten or perhaps never knew the contributions Eisenhower and the generation who fought in World War II gave to the world.
“This memorial and celebration will take us back to a time in history,” he said.
Surrounding the memorial site are the Department of Education, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Voice of America, and the Department of Health and Human Services – all institutions to which Eisenhower was closely connected.
Eisenhower was born in the year the frontier was declared closed – 1890 – and died the year the United States sent astronauts to the moon – 1969. His life bridged the 19th and 20th centuries. He was Supreme Commander in a military operation that decided the fate of the western world for half a century. He presided over eight years of peace and prosperity as a two-term president.
During his administration, civil rights advanced, NASA was founded and the interstate system began.
And it all started in Abilene.
In June 1945, Eisenhower was quoted in a speech to Londoners: “I come from the very heart of America.”
His parents, Ida and David Eisenhower, had seven sons. By the time Ida and David had died, each of those sons had become millionaires, Atwater said.
“The values they learned in Kansas allowed them to succeed,” Atwater said. “It is a unique testament not found in a lot of places. Being Kansan, for Ike, meant telling the truth, getting things done and putting your money where your mouth is. After he left office, he went back to his roots. The first thing he would do when dignitaries showed up, was show them the cattle he was raising. So I mean, he was a country boy at heart.”
‘More relevant today than ever’
Eisenhower did not return to Kansas to live after his military and political career. He had his home and farm next to the Gettysburg Civil War battlefield site in Pennsylvania.
But his story has become a focal point in Abilene. He, his wife Mamie and their son, Doud Dwight, are buried in Abilene on the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and B Home grounds near the Meditation Chapel.
The 22-acre complex in Abilene attracts more than 200,000 visitors each year, many born long after Eisenhower's lifetime.
“Eisenhower is more relevant today than ever and having his memorial in Washington, D.C. alongside the Lincoln and Washington Memorials, both of whom he greatly admired, speaks volumes to his legacy,” said Julie Roller, director of the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The timing for this groundbreaking is perfect as the Eisenhower Presidential Museum is on the verge of a museum redesign. Both of these projects will increase awareness about Eisenhower’s legacy and bring people to our community.”
Thursday, Kansans will help mark the memorial’s beginnings.
Father Leo Blasi of Hays will offer the invocation. The Catholic priest served 29 years as a military helicopter pilot and most recently lived in Abilene. Emma and Annie Bathurst from Abilene will sing “America the Beautiful.”
The message Kansans should take away from the memorial, said Eisenhower’s great-grandson, is perseverance.
“He never forgot his roots, he was humble,” Atwater said. “Think of all the great things he accomplished. But people don’t realize that several times in his life he could have given up and not persevered. He had blood poisoning when he was 8 years old. He didn’t get into Annapolis after he put his brother through college. He tried Westpoint, instead. Several times in his life he could have said, ‘I am not going to do that’ – but he did.”