Presidents make tracks through Waco

Eugene Baker

At the turn of the 20th century, Waco was the sixth largest population center in Texas.

The city had six banks and more than 160 factories, and its economy was spiraling upward. Plans were under way for paving streets, erecting an elaborate Cotton Palace exposition facility and constructing a “skyscraper.”

In addition to achieving these objectives over the next decade or so, Waco would have the privilege of welcoming its first U.S. president.

It would be the first of many, with the most recent being George W. Bush's taking up residence in Greater Waco with his ranch in Crawford

Waco's first brush with the presidency occured in March 1911. Theodore Roosevelt, who had completed his second term in 1909, came to Waco at the invitation of the Young Men's Business League to address the citizens of the community.

Hundreds filled the bleachers and grounds of Katy Park, home of Waco's professional baseball team, to hear the hero of San Juan Hill.

Other former presidents were to follow.William Howard Taft's speech on “Capital, Labor and the Soviet” brought some 2,000 to Baylor's chapel as the inaugural event of the university's Diamond Jubilee Celebration.

After leaving office, Calvin Coolidge traveled to Waco to meet with federal officials he appointed during his administration.

Shortly after World War II, on March 6, 1947, Harry Truman became the first sitting president to visit Waco when he accepted an honorary degree from Baylor. The award, presented by university president and former Texas governor Pat M. Neff, was quite controversial as some Baptist ministers frowned on Truman because of his recent decisions not to oppose gambling or the use of alcohol. The preachers believed the world's largest Baptist university should not grant him such special recognition.

Dwight Eisenhower, in the middle of his first term as president, was the featured speaker at Baylor's 1956 spring commencement. An overflowing crowd packed the Heart of Texas Coliseum to hear him and join in the festivities at which he was presented an honorary doctorate.

Nine years later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson served as graduation speaker and received an honorary doctorate.

On April 29, 1976, President Gerald Ford was welcomed to Waco by Baylor president Judge Abner V. McCall. The Baylor and Waco families packed Waco Hall to listen to Ford's comments and applaud his receipt of a special university jacket emblazoned, “Our Bear in the White House.”

President Ronald Reagan made two visits, one shortly after leaving the California governor's post, the next on Sept. 22, 1988, to speak at the first major event in Baylor's Ferrell Center.

Following his remarks, he joined some 15,000 students, faculty and Waco community members in a “Sic ‘em Bears” yell. He was declared a Baylor Alumnus Honoris Causa (alumnus for cause) and given a jacket similar to the one President Ford received.

In 1992, at the base of the Suspension Bridge, Bill Clinton made Waco one of the stops of his presidential campaign. Clinton and vice president hopeful Al Gore remained in Waco overnight at the Hilton Hotel prior to continuing their campaign tour.

Former president Jimmy Carter addressed a large gathering of Waco citizens at the Masonic Grand Lodge building on Feb. 22, 1993, as the featured speaker for the Robert L. Reid Distinguished Lecture Series. A short time later, he was presented an honorary doctorate by Baylor president Dr. Herbert H. Reynolds on behalf of the institution's board of trustees.

Baylor's relationship with then-Gov. George W. Bush began officially on May 16, 1998, when he and Mrs. Bush were honored by Baylor at the school's spring commencement. The governor received an honorary doctorate and Mrs. Bush was named an Alumnus Honoris Causa in recognition of her outstanding work in literacy.

Waco was privileged to be the site for another special recognition of a member of the Bush family on March 11, 2002, when former first lady Barbara Bush was the featured speaker at the Baylor University Forum Lecture Series. She received an honorary doctorate.

Later that year, President Bush picked Waco as the site for a national economic forum. He was joined by Vice President Dick Cheney and several Cabinet members.

This spring he chose Waco for the site of an international summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin.

Few communities Waco's size have had the privilege of visits from nearly a quarter of the nation's presidents and various members of their families.

As a sign near the airport read during President Bush's many comings and goings, Waco is the "destination of premiers, prime ministers and presidents."

Former Baylor University administrator Eugene Baker is a historian and author.

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