Standing in front of the famous Arc De Triomphe in Paris, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, left, Supreme Allied Expeditionary Force Commander, addresses cheering Frenchmen. To his left, Gen. Joseph Koenig, Military Commander General of Paris, and Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, commanding the 12th Army Group on the continent, center a happy French child, France, August 27, 1944.
There was a lot of excitement around the Hughes Memorial School in Danville, Virginia, in 1952. It. has "school" in its name but it is really an orphanage. The names of six of the youngsters had been drawn from a hat as the ones who would go to New York to see the Macy Thanksgiving Parade. But that was not all. The youngsters had never been to a city larger than Danville so .they were excited about seeing the big buildings of New York.
Little did they dream that they would also mess up the schedule of the next president of the United States.
It started with a simple letter. Dwight Eisenhower had been elected president on the first Tuesday of the month and had put his transition headquarters in the Commodore Hotel in New York. Congressman Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania was working in the transition headquarters. He was a friend so I wrote to him, telling him about the trip, and asking if he could tell me some place the president-elect would be passing so I could have the youngsters get a thrill by seeing him go by.
Three days later I got a surprising phone call. Congressman Scott told me to bring the boys and girls to the Commodore at 11:00 am on Friday.
Friday morning we scrubbed down the kids and dressed them in their best. When we stepped into the hotel lobby, we were immediately surrounded by men in dark suits with shiny little buttons on their lapels. When the Secret Service had identified us as scheduled guests, they unlocked the elevator restricted to the eleventh floor and took us to the busiest room I think I have ever been in.
Don't Mess Up The Schedule
Congressman Scott came out of the crush and explained that we were the only group of that sort who had been scheduled and that we must be out in ten minutes or we would "mess up the schedule." Then he ushered us into a small sitting room.
The youngsters rushed to the window to look at the big buildings. As they did, Dwight Eisenhower came in and sat down in a wingback chair. The boys and girls turned to the man who had just come in and within seconds were sitting in his lap, crawling all over him and asking "kid questions" of him.
I was afraid they were being a bit too enthusiastic, but then I saw that there was an expression of pure pleasure on his face. Then I realized that I was the only one in the room concentrating on the fact that he was the next president of the United States. To the orphans, he was the grandfather they did not have and he recognized that and got right into the role.
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Let's Mess Up The Schedule
When my watch had ticked off eight minutes, I said, “Come on, boys and girls. We have to go."
General Eisenhower had greeted me before the kids commanded his full attention. After that my role had simply been the time keeper. But now he turned to me and asked, "Al, why do you have to go?”
"I was told that if we stayed more than ten minutes, we would mess up your schedule," I replied.
I will never forget what the busiest man in America said. He looked at me and said, "This is the first group that has been in here since the election that did not have anyone in it who wanted to be a member of the cabinet or an ambassador. I'm having a good time. Let's mess up the schedule."
And we did. Our ten minute appointment stretched into a schedule-shattering more than an hour.
Sharing the Bounty
As we were finally getting ready to go, the next president said, "I am appointing lots of presidential committees. I want to appoint you youngsters to a special presidential committee." He reached in his pocket and handed a one hundred dollar bill to a boy who had probably never had a five dollar bill in his hand. "I want you to buy a gift from me to the youngsters who did not get to come on this trip."
When we got back to Danville, they had meeting after meeting trying to decide what to buy with the precious one hundred dollars before finally they made a decision. They decided to buy a portrait of President Eisenhower.
I wrote to the President and told him their decision.
The President Was Very Upset With Me
A few days later, I got a call from Anne Whitman, the President's personal secretary. She began the call with a sentence you do not like to hear from the personal secretary of the president. "The president is very upset with you," she said
"With me!" I asked, in a strained voice.
She said “He does not want them to buy a picture of him. He wants them to get games, or toys or such." Then she added. "We are sending the orphanage a portrait of the president."
My Friend, The President
When the portrait arrived, it was far nicer than they could have bought for one hundred dollars.
It was hung with pride in the lobby of the orphanage where, six youngsters would point to it as they passed and proudly say, "That is a picture of my friend."
Every time I saw the president after that, he asked me about the boys and girls in Danville.
About the Author
Albert “Al” Highsmith grew up in Durham North Carolina. He enlisted in the Navy during WWII while he was a senior in high school. While a student at Duke University he was a reporter for the Durham Sun and Junior Sports Announcer for the radio station WDNC. After being graduated from Duke he moved to Danville, Virginia, and on to Washington, D.C. after being appointed Confidential Assistant to the Postmaster General. He held other positions in Washington which brought him into contact with several presidents. Later the Governor of Virginia appointed him Virginia Real Estate Commissioner. He is now 90 years old and a cancer survivor.