The idea came to Clifford Stiles as he waited tables during summer break at the Grand View Lodge near Brainerd, preparing for his junior year 180 miles to the south at Carleton College in Northfield.
“I had started the college’s Young Republicans chapter,” recalls Stiles, now 85. “Right now, I’d probably be stoned if I did that. But we were a little more conservative in those days.”
One of those days — Sept. 16, 1952 — is frozen in Stiles’ memory and commemorated at his home in the central Minnesota town of Foley.
It’s the day that Stiles somehow accomplished the crazy notion that popped into his head up on Gull Lake. It’s the day he brought Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower, World War II hero and soon-to-be president of the United States, to Northfield.
A campaign poster that Ike autographed for Stiles that day hangs in his kitchen in Foley, where Stiles retired after 50 years as a family doctor. His memories of Ike’s visit 64 years ago provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse at a campaign stop that seems light years away from today’s nasty race for the White House.
Credit for the Stiles-Eisenhower story goes to Northfield historian Susan Hvistendahl, who told it earlier this month in her Historic Happenings column in the regional Entertainment Guide.
She points out that Minnesotans sealed Eisenhower’s nomination at the Republican convention in July 1952. When former Gov. Harold Stassen, also running for the nomination, failed to pick up the necessary 10 percent of first-ballot votes, his 19 Minnesota delegates put Ike over the top.
Stiles got to thinking: Why not invite the nominee “to make an appeal to the youth of America” at Carleton?
During free time at the resort, Stiles wrote and called the Minnesota GOP honchos he had met through Young Republicans, such as Stassen, U.S. Rep. Walter Judd, U.S. Sen. Edward Thye and state party chairman P. Kenneth Peterson.
“I told them my idea … and how Carleton’s Laird Stadium had never been filled since it was built in 1927,” Stiles said.
Party insiders went to Denver to pitch advice to the nominee, including the Minnesotans who shared the Carleton kid’s bold idea.
“The next thing I know,” Stiles said, “I get a call: Eisenhower is coming.”
Stiles started reserving Cadillac convertibles and a sound system. Students from other Minnesota colleges promised to send caravans and cheerleaders.
Stiles also had to contend with Frank Kille, Carleton’s dean, who Stiles said was anti-athletics. The two didn’t get along; Stiles was the basketball team manager. A few days before Eisenhower’s arrival, Kille told Stiles that he’d “made a mess of things” and predicted “a big failure,” saying no one would show up because they could see Ike elsewhere or listen to him on the live WCCO radio broadcast that Stiles had arranged.
Eisenhower, on a 12-state tour, stopped in Albert Lea, Owatonna and Faribault before his arrival by train in Northfield. Things didn’t start well. Testing the stadium sound system just before Ike’s speech, Stiles realized it didn’t work. Panic set in — until he realized someone had merely kicked out the cord.
At the Northfield depot, Eisenhower rebuffed Carleton President Larry Gould’s request to join Ike and his wife, Mamie, in the red convertible Stiles had ordered. “Gould was highly insulted,” Stiles said. “But Eisenhower later apologized and said he was setting a precedent.” He didn’t want Sen. Joe McCarthy, known for anti-Communist witch hunts, to ride in his car when the campaign hit Wisconsin.
As Eisenhower’s car drove through Northfield, sparse crowds lined the streets. “The campaign aides thought they’d really screwed up listening to this kid,” Stiles said.
But as they turned into Laird Stadium, a deafening, cheerleader-and-trumpet-led chorus of “I Like Ike” greeted the future president. An estimated 10,000 citizens, mostly students, filled the stadium for the first time. Stiles asked Dean Kille in the front row: “What do you think now?”
From his podium at the 50-yard-line, Eisenhower joked: “My very good friends, and you must be my friends, otherwise I don’t see how both St. Olaf and Carleton could have turned out here together.”
He reminded the crowd that he was on leave as president of Columbia University in New York: “You people will determine on November 4 whether my leave will be permanent.”
And he went on to praise small colleges as symbols of freedom that preserve “the values that have made our country great.”
“If you can by cooperation show that you can outdo, outthink, outwork and outlearn any dictatorship that has ever existed no matter what its force, you will have done your part,” Ike told the throng.
At the end of the speech, Eisenhower called the event “the dandiest meeting I’ve had in a long time.” Afterward, he signed autographs, including Stiles’ poster. Within two hours he was gone.
Stiles, who grew up in Lake Bluff, Ill., went on to medical school at Northwestern University. “Everybody thought I’d go to law school after that day.”
After a medical stint in Minneapolis, he married Carol McGee 58 years ago and opened his doctor’s office in Foley. One son has taken over the practice. Two of their four children attended Carleton, including two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer T.J. Stiles.
It’s easy to see where his storytelling genes come from.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.