Meeting a President

Guest author: Bob Erickson

LBJ and Lady Bird in the auditorium of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, 1969
Former President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird in the auditorium of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum.

Sheri and I were married on a beautiful Saturday evening on the 24th August of 1968 in the First Lutheran Church in Cresco, Iowa just a few blocks from where we had graduated high school just two years earlier.

After attending church on the morning of Sunday the 25th, we left for our week-long honeymoon to Yellowstone National Park. The following Sunday we returned and moved into an apartment on Church Street in Iowa City.

Sheri had already been living in Iowa City the summer of ’68, working as a nurse’s aide at Mercy Hospital and searching for what was to be our first home together. I moved to Iowa City the day we returned from our honeymoon and began my new job as a school bus driver on Monday morning. We also registered for classes at the University of Iowa. We were beginning our junior year.

The company that owned the City buses also owned the school buses. They hired the school bus drivers, most of which were college students like myself. The bus barn where all the buses were maintained was on the far south side of Iowa City. We lived on the north side on Church Street just to the east of where it intersects Dubuque Street, just to the south of the Dubuque Street hill.

The story I’m about to tell happened on the 20th of February of 1969, just five short months after we had moved to Iowa City. Lyndon Johnson had only one month earlier left the presidency. The new president, Richard Nixon, was inaugurated on January 20th of 1969.

After running my bus route, I jumped into our green 1960 Ford Universal sedan. Universal was actually the model’s name. It was Ford’s basic “plain Jane” model. It had no embellishments of any kind.

On the way back to the apartment, I heard on the radio that President Lyndon Johnson was going to be in West Branch that afternoon at the Herbert Hoover Library. West Branch is a small town about 10 miles East of Iowa City, where President Herbert Hoover was born. It is where the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, gravesite, and even the house in which Herbert Hoover was born are located.

When I returned to the apartment, my best friend was there. I told Al what I’d just heard. Within minutes, we were both headed to West Branch as fast as that plain Jane could get us there. When we arrived, the streets of the town where literally packed with cars. I’d never seen so many Highway Patrol cars in one place. You could have walked to the Hoover library on their roofs.

Camera crews Lining the aisles of the auditorium for the speech by former President Lyndon Johnson.
Camera crews Lining the aisles of the auditorium for the speech by former President Lyndon Johnson.

We walked (on the ground) to the Hoover Library. They let us go inside. It was packed. We sat down. The first thing we noticed were the large carted television cameras in front of the stage.  Each camera was boldly marked on the side with either “ABC”, “NBC”, or “CBS”. At that time, there were only three networks. Neither of us had ever seen a real television camera, no less a live television broadcast. This was about as big as it got – or so we thought.  Little did we know what was about to happen next.

There was an auditorium in the library. It’s was not real large so every seat was a good seat. When we came in, Lady Bird Johnson was already seated in a chair on the stage. Then, when everything was ready, President Johnson was introduced and he walked up to the podium.

I don’t remember what he said, but I will never forget what happened immediately after the program was over. Both the side exit and the front exit were used. Al and I exited through the side door. Just as we got outside, a secret service agent came up to us and asked if we’d like to walk with the President to the grave site. (The grave site is about a city block from the library.)  Of course we said yes. I thought we’d be walking with a large group, but that wasn’t the case. They put one of us on one side of the President and one on the other. There were introductions and then the two of us walked with President Johnson to the grave site. Everyone else had to stay back some distance.

One of the first things that I remember noticing about President Johnson was his size. His entire body seemed to be exaggerated. He wasn’t fat, but he was just large. He was just short of 6’ 4”.  He was big-boned. Even his head seemed to be larger than normal. Then, on top of it, he wore a large hat that made him seem even taller. Both Al and I felt dwarfed alongside him.

I remember him asking about the University of Iowa football team. We were blown away that he knew the names of some of the players and that he knew things about them individually that only an avid college football fan would know.

Another thing that I remember is that he didn’t talk about himself. The whole conversation was about Al and me. I’m sure he asked what our majors were and what sports we were in. That really surprised me. It was easy to talk with him. As I think back on it now, I wish that we‘d have had more time to just talk.

But that wasn’t the end of our adventure that day. It was almost dark by the time we left West Branch. It was heavy traffic moving at a snail’s pace to get out of that little town and onto the highway. Al and I planned to follow the motorcade to the Cedar Rapids airport since we wanted to see the jet that carried the President.

From West branch we took the highway to Iowa City and then went North on US 218 toward Cedar Rapids. (Interstate 380 had not been built yet.) Way up ahead, we could see the lights of the highway patrol cars preceding and following President Johnson’s motorcade. At times we were traveling at 90 miles per hour trying to keep up with that stream of flashing lights, but eventually we still lost sight of them. When we did get to the airport, President Johnson and his entourage had already boarded the plane and had taken off.

Thinking back on it now, missing the take-off of the President’s plane was really of no importance. When I had gotten up that morning, I had no idea that by the end of the day that I’d meet, walk alongside, and converse with a President of the United States.

Over the years, I’ve wondered…did President Johnson ever remember that day when he walked and talked with two young boys from Iowa? Maybe he did. I wonder, did the time we spent together bring back memories of when he was our age, a college student with all of his life ahead of him?  Maybe, he even wished that he could go back to those days when conversations were about football — not war, an assassination, and politics.

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