“If there was anyone in the Kankakee community today who didn’t like Ike, he was in the vast minority,” wrote Kankakee Daily Journal reporter Harry Thiel on Friday, Sept. 14, 1962.
Former President Dwight David Eisenhower had come to Kankakee County to speak at a breakfast honoring longtime U.S. Representative Leslie Arends. The 71-year-old Eisenhower, who had served as U.S. President from 1953 to 1961, remained politically active, frequently making campaign appearances for Republican candidates across the country. The previous evening, he had spoken at an event in Rensselaer, Indiana.
“As Eisenhower and his motor caravan moved through the community this morning,” Thiel reported, “he was greeted by wild cheers, chants of ‘Hi, Ike,’ and waving American flags. The crowd, estimated at 25,000 along the 10-mile parade route, was rewarded with the famous Eisenhower grin and an occasional ‘V for Victory’ sign made famous during his World War II exploits.”
On that sunny fall morning, crowds of spectators gathered early along Court Street to await Ike’s motorcade. For example, the newspaper reported that by 8 a.m., an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 people had lined up along the curbs between Harrison and Greenwood Avenues.
“When Ike’s party was first sighted at 8:24 a.m.,” wrote Thiel, “a wave of expectancy filtered through the sun-bright gathering, and when his convertible…started to move, it was bedlam. Small children, larger ones, and adults…pressed closer for a chance to yell the familiar greeting, ‘I like Ike.’ Many had the chance to shake his hand.”
Accompanied by high school bands and a variety of marching units, the motorcade proceeded down Court Street to St. Mary’s Hospital, where it was greeted by the hospital’s nursing students and children from St. Rose Grade School and St. Joseph Seminary.
Leaving the marching units behind, Eisenhower’s motorcade headed north on Fifth Avenue toward Bradley and Bourbonnais. All along the way, there were cheering crowds gathered on street corners. A short stop had been planned at Olivet Nazarene College (now Olivet Nazarene University), but had to be cancelled—the caravan was 30 minutes behind schedule, and nearly 2,500 breakfast guests were waiting at Kankakee’s Civic Auditorium.
A high-speed return to Kankakee brought the motorcade to the Auditorium at Eighth Avenue and Charles Street at 9:17 a.m. To accommodate the large crowd, several huge tents had been erected next to the building. The Journal noted, “Observers called it the largest indoor political gathering at which everyone was served a meal in the history of Kankakee County.”
People began arriving at the Auditorium before 7 a.m.; those with tickets for the breakfast event were seated in the building and adjoining tents. “Those who could not enter the auditorium queued up outside to view Eisenhower as he arrived,” the newspaper reported. Surrounded by a security cordon of police officers, the former president and Representative Arends entered the building to a standing ovation. “The interior of the packed auditorium was decorated simply,” noted the Journal, “with a large picture of Eisenhower and Arends adorning the speakers’ platform, and a banner proclaiming, ‘Welcome Ike and Les’ draped at one end of the hall.”
Master of ceremonies A.E. “Duff” Kerger opened the program by introducing local Republican political candidates and other dignitaries, and praising Eisenhower as “undoubtedly the greatest living Republican.” That sentiment was echoed by Arends, whose speech immediately preceded Ike’s keynote address. “This man,” said Arends, “has dedicated his life to his country, and has left an imprint which will never be erased from the history books.”
Eisenhower’s speech, which stressed the expected Republican theme of resistance to big government, was interrupted a number of times by applause from what the newspaper described as “the highly partisan crowd.”
He told the crowd, “I could tell, coming in from the state line this morning, that this was Republican territory. Even the corn stands tall and sturdy, growing by itself and not waiting for Uncle Sam to turn on the rain and put on the fertilizer.”
After the program closed with a prayer from the Rev. Francis T. Williams, principal of St. Patrick Central (now Bishop McNamara) High School, Eisenhower departed to a standing ovation. He was driven to the Kankakee Valley Airport, where he boarded a plane for a short flight to Lafayette, Indiana. From there, he would fly to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to make another political appearance.