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Eisenhower Foundation launches fundraising campaign to update Abilene exhibits

Visitors to the Eisenhower Museum study a display. (Aug. 20, 2015)
Visitors to the Eisenhower Museum study a display. (Aug. 20, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

ABILENE – We still like Ike.

This year marks the 125th year of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s birth and the beginning of a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign by the Eisenhower Foundation to update the image, exhibits and education about the nation’s 34th president.

“In the last 15 to 20 years there has been more information that has come out about Ike’s presidency through our library and because of records becoming declassified,” said Meredith Sleichter, executive officer for the Eisenhower Foundation. “These have shaped and evolved his story even more. Our museum needs to be updated so we can get his story up to date.”

It’s not yet known how much money will need to be raised over the next five years, Sleichter said. The fundraising began three months ago. What is known is that the capital campaign will be devoted to updating exhibits at the museum and making them more interactive and informative for generations who have never heard of Eisenhower, the Holocaust or even the Cold War.

Money is needed to update the programming designed for students who come to the Eisenhower Presidential Museum, Library and Boyhood Home and to improve the current website. In addition, money will used to promote the Eisenhower Leadership Legacy to help sustain the museum and education programs for generations to come.

The amount of the capital campaign is expected to be announced later this year or the first of next year.

In the meantime, Eisenhower museum officials are anticipating that the museum will close down for about a year in 2018 for renovation. The Eisenhower complex – the library, boyhood home and meditation chapel will remain open with some of the exhibits moving temporarily over to the library.

Eisenhower’s dual career

The Eisenhowers were River Brethren, a branch of Mennonites known now as the Brethren in Christ. They believed in nonviolence. When Dwight Eisenhower was a boy, his parents became followers of the Watch Tower Society, now best known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Dwight Eisenhower would write in his book, “At Ease, Stories I Tell to Friends,” about his mother and his decision to enter the military academy.

“She saw me off, and then went back home to her room. Milton (his brother) told me later that for the first time in his life he heard Mother cry.”

Faith played an important role in his service as supreme Allied commander during World War II and president of the United States from 1953 to 1961.

As president, he signed an act making “In God We Trust” the national motto, and he established the practice of opening Cabinet meetings with silent prayer.

During a Flag Day speech on June 14, 1954, he signed a bill authorizing the addition of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Eisenhower said he did so because:

“In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”

Eisenhower was born Oct. 14, 1890, in Denison, Texas, the third of seven sons. His father, David, worked as a mechanic in Denison.

When Eisenhower was less than a year old, the family moved to Abilene, where his father worked as a mechanic at the Belle Springs Creamery.

In the Army, Eisenhower excelled, rising steadily through the ranks.

In 1942, he commanded the Allied landing in North Africa. In 1944, he was commander of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France.

When World War II ended, Eisenhower became president of Columbia University, then took leave to lead the new NATO forces in 1951.

A year later, he ran for president on the Republican ticket, and “I like Ike” became a household slogan.

During his terms in office, Eisenhower earned the nickname “Father of the Interstate Highway System.”

He was linked to the civil rights movement because of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and because he ordered federal troops into Little Rock in 1957 to help integrate Central High School.

“The Eisenhower administration passed the most civil rights legislation since Reconstruction at the end of the Civil War,” said William Snyder, curator of the Eisenhower Museum. “The bills passed during the Eisenhower administration laid the groundwork for what Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were able to do.’

Eisenhower also signed a bill that changed World War I-linked Armistice Day into Veterans Day, which honors all veterans.

And, in 1958, he signed the act that created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The Eisenhower library and museum

Shortly after the end of World War II, there was a movement both in Kansas and nationally to build a memorial and museum that would honor Eisenhower and the men and women who served in the war. Out of that effort came the Eisenhower Foundation and the 22-acre complex in Abilene, said Tim Rives, assistant director of the Eisenhower Center. During his military career, Eisenhower earned 75 service medals.

In 1952, when Eisenhower ran for president, construction started on the museum. The construction for Eisenhower’s Presidential Library began in 1962.

It is the only one of 13 presidential libraries and museums under the National Archives and Records Administration that has a president’s boyhood home associated with it. The Herbert Hoover Library in Iowa is operated by the National Park Service and the Richard Nixon boyhood home is operated by the Nixon Foundation.

“We want to create an experience for our guests that incorporates the technology and brings up to a modern standard what museum guests expect today,” Sleichter said.

The renovated museum will get a new lighting system and will be brighter, she said. More exhibits and theaters will be added.

“A lot of times we will get questioned on why the federal government is not taking care of this,” Sleichter said. “While we have a public/private partnership with the National Archives, it structurally keeps the Eisenhower Library in fantastic condition with wonderfully manicured grounds. The buildings are in great condition so our bones are there. But it is up to the Eisenhower Foundation and private donors to take care of exhibits, programs and events.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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