About 200 American Legion Family members, military supporters and other guests honored Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during the 37th annual Eisenhower Pilgrimage Oct. 13 in the general’s hometown of Abilene, Kan.
“I feel honored to be doing this,” said event organizer John Meyeres, a member of American Legion Post 392 in Bazine, Kan. “He was quite a statesman. Considering he grew up in Abilene, it means a lot to all of us. He is one of the most important presidents we’ve had.”
The Department of Kansas American Legion holds the pilgrimage each year at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum on the Saturday closest to Eisenhower’s birthday, which was Oct. 14. At the hour-long ceremony other departments were represented including Nebraska, Illinois and Missouri.
“It’s getting bigger and better every year,” said Meyeres, who has led the program since 2010. “It’s improving every year. Our attendance gets larger every year. I don’t know whether it’s word of mouth or what. Once they see it the first time, they want to come back.
More than 150 wreaths and individual flowers were laid one by one at the base of an Eisenhower statue that is the focal point of the sprawling campus. It includes the presidential library, museum, visitors center, his boyhood home and a chapel called “The Place of Meditation,” his final resting place.
Jeremy Ehart, commander of District 7 and Hutchinson Post 68, laid a wreath on behalf of the district. “It’s pretty special,” said Ehart, a native Kansan who visited the presidential museum and library during school field trips. “It gives you a different perspective when you are a little older and can appreciate it more.”
Navy Capt. Mark Oberley, a native of Kansas, served as the guest speaker.
“Even though I haven’t lived in Kansas in a long time I am still proud of my upbringing,” said Oberley, who grew up in the small town of Ness City (population: 1,449). “President Eisenhower was kind of the same way when he left; he only came back to visit. As a proud Kansan, I like the tie to Eisenhower. Everyone from Kansas who serves looks to him as a role model about what service means. I’m honored by that.”
Eisenhower is known for his leadership in the European Theater during World War II, as well as his two terms as U.S. president. As the nation’s 34th president his accomplishments included creating the interstate highway system, signing the historic Civil Rights Act and establishing NASA.
“It’s great to honor President Eisenhower’s memory,” Oberley said. “He did a lot of great things, leading us through World War II, president of Columbia University and eventually president of the United States. He did a lot of things to bring the country together. We give him a lot of credit today for what he did and I think rightly so. And that’s why we come here to honor him.”
As a youth, Oberley was an American Legion Boys State participant and played Legion Baseball. “I’d like to thank The American Legion community for the positive influence on my life.”
Chuck Shoemaker, department vice commander, was among those who laid a wreath at Eisenhower’s tomb. Shoemaker said his father served in World War II as a commander in the 6th Armored Division and his mother was a Red Cross nurse in England and France.
“Whenever Dad spoke of his experience — when he was asked — his praise for Gen. Eisenhower was unabashed,” Shoemaker recalled. “To be part of the tribute occurring today holds a very special meaning for me.”
Dawn Hammatt also found special meaning via a family member’s service.
As director of the presidential library, Hammatt thanked the Department of Kansas for its support of Eisenhower’s legacy.
“It is really an honor to be part of this weekend,” she said. “Thank you so much for making the journey each year to honor the favorite son of Kansas. Your presence here shows an admiration we still hold for Dwight. We’re very proud here. We’re very militaristic here, in a good way. For the dedication to duty, honor and country by all those who served — including my son right now — and their family members, we sincerely thank you.”
Like many who call Kansas home, Meyeres is proud of the connection to Eisenhower.
“Kansas is a very patriotic state,” he said. “We’re going to honor him in the very best way we can. Honor him, his legacy, everything about him for what he did for Kansas, for the United States and for the world.”