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History's Headlines: The general stops for lunch

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - In the 1940s Allentown played host to everybody from comic actor Ray Bolger to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Even Beat novelist Jack Kerouac in his classic book “On The Road” put one of his characters here in 1947. But it was the arrival of unexpected visitors that sparked the real excitement. So when word got out on an otherwise quiet Tuesday in 1948 that General of the Army Dwight David Eisenhower, former commander of United States military forces in Europe in World War II, had stopped at the Howard Johnson restaurant on Union Blvd. with his wife and mother-in-law, it sparked pandemonium in the press and excitement among those who were fortunate enough to get a view of the war hero.

World War II produced many significant American military figures. General Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific with his jaunty corn cob pipe pointed at a rakish angle was admired by many. General George Patton (Eisenhower was one of the few who could get away with calling him by his nickname Georgie), had the panache of a gallant soldier. And others liked the quiet steady presence of General George Marshall, whose Marshall Plan was reviving Europe as Secretary of State to then president Harry S. Truman.

But Eisenhower had the type of appeal that cut across all lines. He had lead the Allied armies to victory in Europe which marked him as a skilled soldier. But he had also shown himself to be a good planner and organizer. Eisenhower had a temper to be sure. But he was very careful not to let it show. Many years later in 1963 he confronted his briefly disobedient teenage grandson David Eisenhower with a look that stunned him. “Being on the receiving end of an electric shock administered by D.D.E. was not something easy to forget,” he recalled years later. But his grandfather quickly forgave him several hours later. “I give all my associates one second chance a year,” he said, flashing the famous grin. What the public remembered about Ike most was his easy grin. Here was a man American parents felt they could trust their sons with, someone who would not risk their lives recklessly. It was that same feeling that many of them shared when they entrusted him to guide their country as President of the United States.

Interestingly at least one of the things that made Eisenhower newsworthy in 1948 was that it was an election year. That February Ike had decided to leave the military and accepted the post of president of New York’s Columbia University. But the press refused to believe that such an attractive potential candidate for the Republican nomination would pass up what all the pundits were saying was an easy shot at the White House. The country was tired of government regulations and Truman’s ineptness. “To error is Truman,” was their unofficial slogan. It just so happened that Tuesday, April 6, 1948, the date of Eisenhower’s visit, was the date of the Republican primary in Wisconsin. Republican front runners Thomas E. Dewey and Harold Stassen had been blindsided by a sudden “boomlet” of support for MacArthur. This apparently turned all eyes to another popular general.

Eisenhower knew of all this of course but he had other, more family oriented thoughts on his mind. He, his wife Mamie, and her mother Mrs. John Sheldon Doud were returning from West Point where his son John was commandant. Here for the first time the Eisenhowers saw their grandson David.  Now they were headed back to Gettysburg and then Washington. Their field green military chauffer driven sedan pulled up at 12:30 at the Howard Johnson at 647 Union Bld. Built in 1941, it was closed shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor due to gas rationing. Reopening in December, 1945, it was doing a brisk business in the pre-interstate highway era.

Diners’ necks craned to see who it could be. Although cell phones were far in the future it was apparently restaurant management who called the local press with the news of the very important party that had dropped in for lunch. It was not long before the Evening Chronicle’s reporters were on the scene with a photographer. There is nothing on the record to tell what the Eisenhower party had for lunch. They probably had little time to eat. After posing with his wife and mother-in- law for a photo, the famous Eisenhower grin was on full display. While signing autographs, the General was bombarded with questions: what did he think of the upcoming election? Who did he support, Dewey or Stassen? What did he think of MacArthur’s chances? Were there any chances he might throw his hat in the ring?

Eisenhower, who was in full uniform at the time, was cagey. Democrat Harry Truman was still his commander in chief. And MacArthur for whom he had once worked and did not like, was not someone he wanted to disagree with publicly.

Eisenhower refused to be boxed in, referring to his numerous public statements that he had no interest in running for president in 1948. He was going to be president of Columbia University and that was all he cared about at that moment. “Don’t you folks read the English language?” he asked as they continued to pepper him with questions.

It is not known what either his wife or his mother-in-law thought of all this. As a good Army wife Mamie knew when it was time to be quiet. Her mother, however, was known for her sharp wit and at times tart tongue but alas nobody thought of asking her. After roughly an hour at the restaurant the Eisenhower party got into their car for the ride west to Gettysburg. The press got one more photo of Ike in the front seat beside his driver before they drove off into history.

In 1948 the Republicans nominated Thomas Dewey and to the surprise of everyone lost the election to Truman. But 1952 was to be Ike’s year. He was to be president for two terms, serving until 1961.

As for the Howard Johnson, in 1957 the company built a new restaurant on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near the Lehigh Valley Interchange. In 1958 Howard Johnson sold the Union Blvd. property and it was eventually torn down.    

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