An InvitationPlans for having President Lyndon B. Johnson pay a return visit to Glassboro got underway as early as October 8, 1967. On that date, five senior members of the Glassboro Student Government Association penned a letter to Glassboro's President Thomas E. Robinson. In the missive the students urged Dr. Robinson to keep the flickering flame of the "Spirit of Holly Bush" alight by inviting the President of the United States to give the Commencement Day speech on June 4, 1968. Summoning the seniors to a meeting in his office, Dr. Robinson applauded their idea, but he also cautioned them not to expect the lightning of world attention to strike Glassboro twice in one year. "You must realize," the College President informed the student leaders, "that the President of the United States has literally hundreds of invitations to speak every month. Those he accepts must pass the test of providing the President with a forum for advancing the interests of the United States." Continued Dr. Robinson, "Nevertheless, your suggestion has much merit. Let's see if we can persuade Governor Hughes to use the prestige of his office to make it a reality."
Accordingly, on October 10, 1967, the Glassboro President wrote the Governor:
Despite his reluctance to place the college in a bargaining role, Dr. Robinson felt that it was just possible that President Johnson might have something to say to the world from the scene of his Summit Conference with Premier Kosygin and on the anniversary of that historic meeting. If the President saw merit in the idea, Glassboro, wrote Dr. Robinson, would be most happy to invite him to be the principal speaker at the college commencement in June.
Our students are still keyed up over the world-wide recognition which Glassboro received as a result of the Summit Conference which you arranged with President Lyndon B. Johnson. We have definitely tried not to capitalize upon this event, for we feel that every party which would be asked to house a Summit Conference should have been very happy to do so without any thought of any possible advantage that might accrue from such an event.
Seeking both advice and aid, the Glassboro President then asked the New Jersey Governor:
Attendance at the Governor's Conference in the Virgin Islands kept the Governor from answering Dr. Robinson's letter immediately. But on November 8 the New Jersey Chief Executive responded, bestowing his blessing on the Johnson Commencement speech idea and assuring Dr. Robinson that he would do everything possible to persuade the President to accept the engagement. "I know," wrote Governor Hughes, "that President Johnson will give it serious consideration. He was obviously thrilled and enthused by the 'Spirit of Holly Bush' and has spoken many times since of Glassboro and of you."
Will you let me know whether the idea has any merit? If it does, we hope that you will be our intermediary to investigate the possibility. We thank you for any consideration you may give to this proposal of the Senior Class and of the Glassboro State College Administration and Faculty.
Two weeks later Glassboro heard directly from the White House. Presidential Assistant Marvin Watson wrote Dr. Robinson expressing President Johnson's appreciation for the invitation to speak at the Commencement exercises. Mr. Watson, however, suggested it was too early to know what the President's June schedule would be like, but the Chief Executive hoped that Glassboro would keep the June 4 date open. Watson urged Dr. Robinson to renew the invitation in the spring. On a parting note, the Assistant to the President wrote encouragingly, "The President, as you must know, would enjoy revisiting Glassboro because he still remembers the warm reception and hospitality of the citizens of your community and of your college."
Little did the Glassboro President know, in November, of the problems that Lyndon Johnson would be coping with in the hectic spring of 1968. Late winter had brought the Tet Offensive accompanied by the North Korean seizure of the Pueblo. Early spring saw the Martin Luther King assassination, followed by riots in American cities. And on March 31, Lyndon Johnson renounced another term as president, a sacrifice that helped significantly to initiate peace negotiations on the Viet Nam War. To Dr. Robinson the months of March and April were hardly the times to expect the hard-pressed American President to make another decision, no matter how small.
But by late April the cauldron of national and international events had begun to simmer down. On April 24, Dr. Robinson again wrote Governor Hughes, asking for advice on the timing and method of renewing Glassboro's invitation to President Johnson. In reply, the Governor frankly admitted that he knew of no certain way in which a decision could be invoked from the President at that time. But Mr. Hughes went on to add:
On May 3, one month before Commencement, Dr. Robinson wrote to Mr. Watson, asking the Postmaster General to act as an intermediary in discovering whether President Johnson could be induced to serve as the graduation speaker. Three days later, Mr. Watson replied. He stated that he was no longer involved in the President's scheduling but would forward Dr. Robinson's letter to the White House for an answer. Thus, with the Commencement date less than one month distant, Glassboro was very much in the dark as to the identity of its principal speaker.I might suggest that you drop a letter to Marvin Watson who is now the Postmaster General, but who is in frequent touch with the President. Your name and the great symbolism of Glassboro will certainly be familiar to the President, and I think that is as efficient a way as any to get a firm yes or no from the White House.
Mr. Underwood also asked whether a back-up speaker could be obtained–one who would be willing to step aside if the President did come and permit the President to be his "substitute" speaker, and yet be prepared to speak if the President found it impossible to be present. When Dr. Robinson suggested that Governor Richard Hughes might be prevailed upon to be a "possible" speaker, the response from the White House was hearty approval.
Governor Hughes gave a quick and gracious assent to acting as back-up speaker. By so doing he soothed Glassboro's frayed nerves considerably. The college now could announce publicly who its commencement orator would be. Hopefully, the announcement might throw curious reporters off the scent of a trail leading to a Presidential visit. As it turned out, the fiction that Glassboro was preparing for a visit from Governor Hughes but not one from Lyndon Johnson was maintained, not too convincingly, until 8:15 A.M. of Commencement Day.
It was the Underwood telephone call on May 21 that gave Glassboro more than a hint that the Johnson helicopter would once more be landing on the Glassboro Athletic Field. The exact phrase was "he was interested in coming." But it was definite enough to get preparations underway.
Preparations for a VisitGlassboro officials realized, of course, that planning a commencement involving the President of the United States was not the same as getting ready for a routine graduation program. But, in the interest of security, preparations must not be too elaborate and, above all, they should not begin too soon. In fact, a follow-up call from Martin Underwood stressed there would be no public announcement of the President's tentative plans to visit Glassboro and that any preparatory work "should be done without violating the security of the visit." Accordingly, college administrators decided to wait one week prior to commencement before making overt plans.
During the interim week between the first Underwood telephone call and the start of active preparations, the telephone circuits between Glassboro and the White House were in frequent use. At one point, Dr. Robinson requested permission for him and Business Manager Walter Campbell to visit one of the President's aides in order to finalize commencement details and unfamiliar protocol at first hand. But a trip of this kind proved impossible, because the President and his staff were about to leave for the Johnson City Ranch in Texas. In lieu of on-the-spot discussions, Glassboro officials had to be satisfied with ironing out details by telephone, items such as: bestowing an honorary doctorate on Mr. Johnson and determining the citation to be used; introducing the President; timing the commencement program with the President's arrival; determining the amount and types of television coverage; estimating the additional telephone circuits needed; and agreeing on security measures.
Guided by directives emerging from these telephonic conversations, Glassboro, on Wednesday, May 29, got down to hard commencement planning. On that date, Dr. Robinson met with Business Manager Walter Campbell, Dean of Instruction Stanton B. Langworthy, Dean of Administration Ward Broomall, and Associate Dean of Instruction James Judy. This meeting triggered a train of activities rarely associated with any college commencement program.
Graduating seniors were the first to suspect that the commencement program of 1968 might be something special. Gathered in the Esbjornson gymnasium to receive instructions and to rehearse graduation marching and seating procedures, the seniors heard President Robinson announce last-minute changes in the commencement site and time. Dr. Robinson informed the seniors that graduation exercises would be held on the Bunce Hall oval-shaped lawn, instead of the tree-dotted grove facing Route 322; and that the program would be moved up from 10:30 A.M. to 9:00 A.M.
While the Robinson announcement was not of the block buster variety, the seniors began to speculate on the reasons for the changes. Their pulsebeats quickened perceptively when Dr. Robinson informed them that the 1968 commencement exercises would be historic, because it would mark the first time that a New Jersey governor had ever given the Glassboro graduation address. As always the seniors listened to their President respectfully, but there must have been something in his demeanor that convinced some of them that a much higher political personage than Governor Hughes would be participating in the commencement program. In any event, examinations were over. Ahead for the seniors was a three-day break for relaxation before they reported back to the campus for Convocation on Sunday.
Activities like these whetted the curiosity and heightened the anticipation of faculty members as they made their way to the year's last faculty meeting. On the way, they read a mimeographed bulletin headed by the warning word "REVISION", repeated seven times for emphasis. In essence. the communication informed the instructors of changes in commencement time and site, both made for the convenience and security of principal speaker Governor Richard J. Hughes.
At the meeting itself, President Robinson cautioned the staff on the danger of drawing hasty conclusions from the frenetic work activities they had observed outside. He also asked their cooperation in squelching rumors of any unexpected "happening" on Commencement Day. The faculty, however, was not totally convinced that Mr. Hughes was to be the main commencement speaker.
On the way out of the meeting, a colloquy between orchestra director Robert Taylor and a colleague illustrated faculty skepticism.
"Bob," asked the colleague, "didn't I hear your orchestra rehearsing "Hail to the Chief?"
"Yes," replied the director laconically.
"Isn't that the number played for the President of the United States only?"
"I guess so," replied Mr. Tayior, "but we've been told to rehearse it for Governor Hughes' entrance on Tuesday."
"Oh yeah!" was the skeptical colleague reaction.
On Saturday the preparation pace accelerated and so did the spate of rumors that flowed freely on campus and throughout the town. And on Sunday afternoon, after the convocation ceremonies, twenty-two Secret Service agents invaded Glassboro, the advance guard of a much larger force yet-to-come. Included in the group were the familiar figures of Michael Varinholt and Philip Struther, who had coordinated security arrangements during the Summit days of a year ago. Agent Varinholt informed Walter Campbell that, while there was as yet no official confirmation of a Presidential return visit, he and his men were on campus to check both student and community organizations which might feel impelled to organize hostile demonstrations.
By early Monday evening, preparations had been completed to host a governmental official, no matter how high his rank. White House press official Lloyd Hackler had finished supervising the erection of a two-tier television stand to the right of the speakers' platform upon which had been laid a gold-tweed carpet. On the college Athletic Field, adjoining Bunce Hall, Secret Service men had directed workmen as they roped off areas to hold back the crowd expected to welcome a high governmental official flying into Glassboro in a helicopter. In the Campus School, adjoining the Athletic Field, Western Union workmen had installed six teletype machines and arrangements had been made in the same building to satisfy the press needs of 178 newsmen, including representatives of the Associated Press and the United Press International. Bell Telephone Company employees had completed installing forty six additional circuits, together with meeting the needs of radio and television officials. And Atlantic City Electric Company's Phil Miller had finished the task of supplying communications people with all the electrical power they would need.
Feverish preparations of this magnitude did not escape the attention of newspaper editors nor television officials. Throughout Monday reporters besieged Dr. Robinson with insistent inquiries:
"Is the President actually coming?" asked one reporter.
"We have no information of this kind," answered the imperturable College President, "The Governor is our speaker."
"Will Glassboro confer an honorary doctor's degree on President Johnson?" inquired another newsman.
"We'd love to," replied Dr. Robinson, "if he actually did come,"
"Come now, sir, you know he's coming," chimed in another reporter.
"Not so," shot back the College Head, "All I'm certain of is that we are having a commencement tomorrow. We have one every June."
Seniors and faculty reported at 8:30 A.M. to assigned locations to don academic regalia and to form what looked to be endless academic procession lines. As they waited for the signal to march, they observed sights that brought back memories of the 1967 Summit Conference days. State Policemen were posted on top of college buildings, at the Athletic Field, along the railroad embankment, and at campus exits and entrances. Secret Service officers seemed to be everywhere, easily identified by trim builds, conservative and neat business suits, and tiny insignia worn on coat lapels.
Faculty members marveled at another example of what they call the "Robinson Commencement Day Weather Luck." It was a sunny and warm day. The temperature ranged between seventy-five and eighty degrees and the humidity was moderate. Weather of this kind was in stark contrast to that of the week before, when it rained or threatened to rain every day. All that was needed to make this graduation Glassboro's most memorable was for Lyndon B. Johnson to make an appearance.
At 9:00 A.M., when the college orchestra, sounding the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance," got the academic procession line moving, none of the participants was certain that the President would be on hand. But they need not have worried, because Mr. Johnson was at that moment Glassboro bound. At 8:00 A.M. he had helicoptered from Washington to Maryland's Andrews Air Base. While he was aboard the helicopter, the White House at 8:15 A.M. made the official announcement that the President would be the Commencement Day speaker at Glassboro State College. At the Andrews Air Base, the Chief Executive boarded Air Force One which flew him to the Philadelphia International Airport, where at 9: 02 A.M. he became airborne again in another helicopter. At 9:15 A.M. this machine dropped gently on the Glassboro Athletic Field in back of second base.
After the President alighted from the helicopter, he was greeted by a thunderous roar of cheers coming from the throats of over 3,000 Glassboro school children and older townspeople. The Glassboro High School Band played "Hail to the Chief" and "Ruffles and Flourishes," but the music was barely audible amid the crescendo of cheers. As the President started walking the one-hundred-yards from the helicopter to the Bunce Hall side-door entrance, he saw with delight the dense crowd, packed six-deep and stretched in semi-circular fashion on either side of the door. The people were held back by a rope barrier in front of which State Troopers three feet apart stood guard facing the crowd. Children and their elders waved signs - all friendly - with hastily scrawled messages: WELCOME BACK L. B. J.; HELLO LYNDON; WELCOME HOME MR. PRESIDENT; WISH YOU COULD STAY MR. PRESIDENT; HOORAY FOR L.B. J.; and THE FOURTH GRADE WELCOMES L.B. J. People, young and old, stretched out hands to the approaching President. He did not disappoint his admirers. Turning from the entrance to Bunce Hall, Mr. Johnson went down the line, grasping hand after hand. It was the kind of therapy the hard-pressed, problem-plagued Chief Executive needed, and it was the same kind of overwhelmingly affectionate reception he had received one year ago from the crowd gathered on Whitney Avenue bordering Holly Bush.
Finally, however, Mr. Johnson heeded the gentle prodding of omnipresent Secret Service men. He ended his hand-shaking activity to enter Bunce Hall, where, in Dr. Lawson Brown's office facing the Commencement platform outside, attendants garbed him in the traditional cap and gown of the academic world. Whereupon, the President strode through Bunce Hall's front door and onto the commencement platform. His entrance was the signal for the college orchestra to play "Hail to the Chief." When the orchestra had finished, Clarence Miller's college choir continued the musical salute to the distinguished guest by singing, in a moving manner, "America the Beautiful." While the musical numbers were being rendered, the Chief Executive shook hands cordially with the eleven platform participants. He then turned to face the commencement crowd. The President must have been moved by what he saw and heard. About 13,000 people were on their feet giving him a prolonged ovation. In the dense crowd were 350 faculty members in colorful academic attire, 1,054 graduating degree candidates and their proud parents, faculty relatives, and Glassboro townspeople of all ages. A grateful President acknowledged the tribute with a sad, almost wistful smile and a slight raising of his hand. To him the ovation was a tonic for nerves stretched to the breaking point by events of a hectic spring.
After the applause had subsided and the audience taken their seats, Dr. Robinson stepped forward to introduce the Commencement speaker, if an introduction indeed was needed. Said the Glassboro President:
Lyndon Johnson approached the Presidential podium, with its blue and gold seal of the President of the United States, to deliver the Commencement address. It did not take long for the audience to realize that this was to be a major speech on foreign affairs. In it the President declared that the United States was determined to stand firm in Viet Nam until Hanoi offered more at the Paris Peace Conference than bellicose statements and evasions. On the Middle East, Mr. Johnson pledged strong support for the United Nations' efforts to bring permanent peace to that explosive region. Turning to relations with the Soviet Union, the Chief Executive cited several specific agreements his country had made with Russia since the Holly Bush Summit Conference. He then went on to list still more opportunities for United States-Soviet agreements which could be made quickly, thus bridging the gulf that existed between the two superpowers since the end of World War II. Finally, the President urged Americans to seek answers, not slogans, in the efforts needed to solve the knotty problems associated with peacemaking.We are honored today by a return visit by the President of the United States.
Almost a year ago we met him as one of the two chief participants in the Holly Bush Summit Meeting as he earnestly and strenuously tried to develop the relationships out of which might come just and permanent solutions to the world's pressing problems.
In that meeting, and thereafter, he displayed the strength, the concern for the broad issues, the understanding and the restraint, and the unselfish spirit which have earned the admiration of his constituents and the world.
Today he revisits us, to the delight of Glassboro State College and the graduating Class of 1968.
It is a high honor for me today to present to the Class of 1968 and its friends, our distinguished visitor and friend.
Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.
In content and delivery, the speech was admirably suited to both the occasion and the audience. It did not have the sound of bugles calling its hearers to battle. It did not have the evangelistic fever of a political leader urging his followers to rally around a party standard. On the contrary, it was a calm, reasoned, and well-organized presentation of a serious subject, an effort the academic community appreciated, not with screams nor waving of signs but with prolonged salvos of applause. At the end of the forty-minute speech, the audience rose again to give the President another ovation.
When quiet came, Dr. Robinson came to the podium once more to award Lyndon Baines Johnson the Doctor of Letters degree, which reports say was his thirty-seventh. Read the Glassboro President:
Fated to govern in a time of war, he pressed for peaceful accommodation and understanding between nations. Resolute in defense of freedom, he has dedicated his Presidency to the search of a stable world order-in which each nation might pursue its own destiny without fear of aggression. He has been firm in adversity; patient in travail; a patriot who has consistently placed the unity of our country and the quest for peace above personal advantage.
By the authority invested in me by the Glassboro State Board of Trustees, I confer upon you, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, with all the rights, privileges, immunities, and obligations appertaining thereto.
Following the citation, Dean Stanton Langworthy stepped forward to drape Glassboro's brown and gold hood around the shoulders of the President of the United States. Thus Lyndon Johnson, about to retire from office in six months, received what may well turn out to have been his last degree; and it was granted by a college still primarily devoted to preparing students for careers in public school teaching. Thirty-eight years before, in 1930, Mr. Johnson received his first degree from the Texas Southwestern State Teachers College.
By now it was past ten o'clock and the President had a 11:30 A.M. appointment at the White House with President Jose Fernandez of Costa Rica. Leaving the commencement ceremonies, he reentered Dr. Brown's office to remove his academic robes. From there Mr. Johnson made his way to Bunce Hall's side door exit, where an eager crowd waited to greet him again.
First to shake the President's hand when he emerged was Glassboro graduate assistant Calvin Iszard. Calvin recalls the moment vividly. Momentarily speechless, he held the President's hand while struggling for the right words. At last they came: "Thank you, Mr. President, for coming back to Glassboro." Lyndon Johnson looked surprised, but then, grinning broadly, he replied, "Well, thank you, it was my pleasure to come back to Glassboro."
With this gracious response, the President was off on another handshaking tour, grasping the hands of eager citizens as he made his way rapidly alongside the crowd. After traversing about 120 feet, Mr. Johnson turned sharply to his right to walk from the baseball diamond's home plate to the huge helicopter perched beyond second base.
Ascending three steps of the copter, the Chief Executive turned to give a final wave to the crowd. At that moment, Dr. Robinson extended his hand to the President. The Chief Executive seized the College President's hand and pulled him up the helicopter steps. Lyndon Johnson then grasped Dr. Robinson's hand and raised it aloft in the manner of presidential and vice-presidential nominees greeting delegates at the end of a political convention. With this gesture, Mr. Johnson triggered a deafening roar from the happy crowd. Releasing his hand, the President threw his right arm around Dr. Robinson's shoulder, while waving his left hand to the crowd.
It was a touching scene involving two men who shared a common sadness. One had stated his determination to relinquish, in six months, the highest elective office in the world. The other in less than two weeks would announce that he was resigning his office as President of a college he had served honorably and faithfully for sixteen years.
At the conclusion of this tableau, Mr. Johnson climbed into the helicopter. The door was shut. Rising vertically for a short distance, the copter veered in a northwest direction for Philadelphia. Peering from the helicopter window, the President was last seen wearing a smile and giving a final wave of his hand. For Glassboro a memorable sentimental journey had ended.
Motivation for a Journey
Why did the President of the United States interrupt the busiest of schedules to journey to Glassboro for a return visit? One answer to this question can be found in the President's commencement address. Midway in the speech, Mr. Johnson revealed that he came back to Glassboro, the scene of the Holly Bush Summit Conference, to offer specific new proposals for promoting cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union. By offering these suggestions, the President was also, in the opinion of Melvin K. Whiteleather of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin's editorial staff, making a bid for an invitation to go to Moscow and a follow-up Summit Conference, where the President and Premier Kosygin might sit down together to discuss the American proposals.
Glassboro accepts these as motivating forces for the President's return trip, but Glassboroites also feel that he had a more down-to-earth reason for coming back to the Summit Town. They believe he returned because he genuinely likes the place. This fondness was evident as he addressed the Commencement Day crowd. At the outset, he said, "I am glad to return to Glassboro. I shall always remember this town as a place of warm friendship and hospitable people." Later, he stressed the need to establish good relations with the Soviet Union, "relations," he claimed, "which you good people here at Glassboro, at the college and in the community, did so much to try to help us promote."
Near the end of his address, the President, calling upon the American people to brace themselves for a long, painful peace-making effort, praised Glassboro again:
There will be much frustration and abuse. But I hope that you–and all our fellow–will try in the days ahead to display the fortitude, forbearance, and understanding that has symbolized the Glassboro that I know–the Glassboro that extended the friendly hand last year, the Glassboro that said to two leaders, "Yes, we will be ready in an hour to provide an atmosphere and the accommodations necessary in the hope that something fruitful will eventually develop."
In other words, Lyndon B. Johnson made the return trip to Glassboro, at least in part, because he wanted to renew an acquaintance with warm, friendly people–people who understand that patience, understanding, and encouragement on their part help leaders to create a peaceful world.
On the first anniversary of the Holly Bush Summit Conference, Glassboro appreciated the President's thoughtfulness in making a sentimental journey back to the town he had grown to like and admire.