Blame Mamie: Ike's wife is reason Air Force Academy isn't in the metro-east

A. Hopes were indeed flying as high as a B-52 here in 1954 when the push for an Air Force Academy finally turned serious.December 28, 2013 

After decades of talk, President Dwight Eisenhower began making the push soon after his inauguration in January 1953. Within 18 months, a five-member committee whittled down hundreds of possible sites to just three -- including Elsah, where Principia College had moved in the mid-1930s from St. Louis.

But the dreams of local residents were shot down at least in part by someone many may find a big surprise. According to Principia College, Mamie Eisenhower asked her husband to pick Colorado Springs instead of Elsah. That's possibly why today the beautiful campus graces the foothills of the Rocky Mountains instead of the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi.

It was a terrible disappointment 35 years in the making for the St. Louis area. Decades before the Air Force was established as an independent department in 1947, officers in the Army Air Service already were calling for such an academy.

"No service can flourish without some such institution to inculcate into its embryonic officers love of country, proper conception of duty and highest regard for honor," Lt. Col. A.J. Hanlon said in 1918.

In 1948, Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington (and a future Missouri senator) renewed the call for such an institution, and in 1949, an academy site selection board was established. After reviewing 300 sites in 22 states, they apparently determined Colorado Springs to be the most appropriate site. The findings, however, were not made public, and the issue again was put on the back burner when the Korean War started.

Then, on April 1, 1954, Eisenhower signed the Air Force Academy Act to put the establishment of an academy on the fast track. Within two months, a five-member Air Force Site Selection Commission evaluated 580 proposals from 45 states. On June 3, it announced the three finalists: Colorado Springs, Elsah and an area near Lake Geneva, Wis., although some say this latter choice was a distant third.

That's when the first lady and a bit of Colorado chicanery teamed up to ground Elsah's plans for such an important coup.

According to "Skies to Conquer" by Diana Jean Schemo, R. Soland Doenges, who headed the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, visited the Alton area while the commission was making its final choice. He reportedly wore a fake beard, sunglasses and old clothes and pretended to be a metro-east resident as he denigrated the academy and encouraged residents to do the same.

At home, of course, Doenges and other Colorado Springs leaders did everything they could to woo commission members, putting them up in the best hotel suites and promising to provide land and new roads to accommodate the academy. They even had Charles Lindbergh fly over to evaluate the site. Area newspapers reportedly agreed not to publish anti-academy letters from readers.

But according to the story told by Principia College, it was Mamie Eisenhower who gave the Illinois site the kiss of death.

When Air Force officials toured Elsah, they suggested that much of the Principia campus would be razed. In fact while standing near the Principia College chapel, Air Force Secretary Harold Talbott reportedly said: "This is beautiful. We can leave it, but the rest of these buildings must go."

Soon, the school was urging all Christian Scientists to write the president and ask him to locate the academy elsewhere. Then came the fatal blow: Charlotte Prichard was the mother of an alumna -- and good friends with Mamie Eisenhower, whom Prichard apparently convinced to spare Principia.

At least, that's the story that came out later. During a visit to Principia in October 2003, former Kansas congresswoman Martha Keys reported a meeting she had had with fellow congressional colleague William Natcher, of Kentucky.

Natcher reportedly told Keys of a meeting he had had with the president during which Ike said that Mamie had never asked him for any favors -- except one. In essence, according to the spring 2004 issue of the Principia Alumni Purpose magazine, Ike said "the only thing Mamie ever asked me for was to put the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs."

So, on Aug. 24, 1954, Talbott announced his decision to put the academy in Colorado. On Aug. 29, 1958, 1,145 cadets took up residence on the new campus and the first commissioned officers graduated the following June 5.

Today's trivia

What are zoonoses?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: "Five, four, three, two, one! Chuck it!" That's what you'll likely hear in Bangor, Maine, at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. In 2004, Bangor attorney Stephen Smith threw a purple beach ball covered with white lights off a building in West Market Square to celebrate the arrival of 2005, and his celebration has grown ever since. Meanwhile, in Flagstaff, Ariz., eyes will turn toward the Weatherford Hotel to watch the descent of the 70-pound, LED-lighted Weatherford Pine Cone, a Flagstaff tradition for 15 years. Happy New Year -- I'll be back sane and sober on Thursday.

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