This is the first in a series of stories about historic presidential visits to Ohio University.
On May 7, 1964, seven minutes before noon, President Lyndon Johnson’s helicopter touched down at Ohio University’s Peden Stadium.
This day marked the first time a sitting U.S. president visited Ohio University. Johnson delivered a half-hour speech at the west portico of Memorial Auditorium, celebrating the university’s 160th birthday.
Greeted by Nelsonville High School’s band, Johnson, along with his daughter Lynda Bird and cabinet members, stepped out of the helicopter. As he waved to a sea of spectators, Johnson spotted a sign asking, “President Johnson, Will You Sign Our Bass Drum?” A smiling Johnson went up and left his autograph on the band’s scarlet and grey Greyhound drum.
The city was ready to welcome Johnson. The campus and downtown streets had undergone sudden cleanings a day prior to his arrival, something like “a slightly dirty youngster getting a quick bath when mother learns the preacher is coming to visit,” the Athens Messenger humorously reported. All buildings along the parade route had been inspected, and all windows facing the route were closed with the blinds up.
Banners and signs reading “Welcome President Johnson” and “HOWDY LBJ” hung in front of the sorority houses and dormitories along the parade route. Thousands of local residents flocked to the streets, but the crowd was relatively quiet, as if they were “in awe of what they were viewing,” said the Athens Messenger article.
After brief remarks from his daughter Lynda Bird, 20 years old at the time, Johnson stepped up to the podium on College Green.
“After my recent experience with my beagle dogs, it is wonderful to be back here with all these Bobcats,” Johnson said, beginning his address on a light note by poking fun at his infamous incident of lifting his beagle dog by its ears.
Poverty was the theme of his speech, as he had just declared war on poverty during his State of the Union address in January 1964, four months before he came to OU.
“Since this began as a poverty inspection tour, I want to clarify our presence here,” Johnson said. “The faculty opinion notwithstanding, I do not believe that Ohio University has any poor students. As the father of a college daughter dressed in green and white today, if I wanted to inspect pockets of poverty, I would go and inspect the parents instead of coming here.”
Johnson pointed out the challenge of bringing equal justice, abolishing human poverty, eliminating illiteracy and ending open bias and active bigotry.
He also talked about the societal pressure of playing cool and the importance of enthusiasm, which is still relevant 52 years later.
“I know that we live in an age when it is considered correct to play it cool, when it is right to be reserved, when it is not good form to show great faith … But we cannot succeed without the enthusiasm and the courage which are the legacy of our history.”