Back in 1956, my parents watched politics on television often. Even though there were only three commercial stations and a public television station (WTTW – Window to the World) in Chicagoland, they managed to cover President Eisenhower (nicknamed Ike) well. He not only was our current President, but he also was running for reelection that fall.
It was perfectly normal to see my father drawing caricatures of him and other politicians while watching television. After all, he made a living drawing gag and editorial cartoons for local newspapers.
In early 1956, my dad even created an animated character for WNBQ-TV to introduce color television to Chicagoland. Red-haired Tommy Tint was dressed in a green shirt and blue overalls. Tommy painted the town and blew it up with a dynamite plunger to show off the vivid primary colors and entice the audience to tune in. Unfortunately, our family did not own a color television set, so we missed seeing Tommy and WNBQ in living color.
As an enthusiastic preschooler, I positioned my own small desk and chair in front of our black and white television set during the evening news. I loved Ike. My parents wore “I Like Ike” campaign buttons, and my grandmother even wore a rhinestone “IKE” pin to promote his reelection.
Soon I started imitating my dad and drew and colored my own caricatures of Ike. I eventually added First Lady Mamie to my repertoire. I especially loved her bangs and red hat.
My dad was not shy about his pride in my drawings of Ike and Mamie. He also was a loyal Republican. Ironically, the 1956 Democratic Presidential candidate was Adlai Stevenson from our home state of Illinois.
A few days after Ike won the November 6 election, my dad suggested that I mail my drawings of Ike and Mamie to the President and First Lady. I carefully drew and colored special drawings for each of them. My mom addressed the envelope to the White House, placed my drawings inside, and drove them to the nearest post office. Going to the post office was a daily activity for my dad as he mailed his cartoons to several local newspapers.
I continued doing my normal four-year-old activities: attending preschool and Sunday school, playing with my neighborhood friends, and singing along with the albums of my favorite musicals.
As usual, my dad brought in the mail on November 23 while I was doing errands with my mom. When we returned, he exclaimed, “You have a letter from the White House, Diane!” (He could not resist opening the envelope before we returned home.)
On White House letterhead was a letter signed by the First Lady! My dad read the letter out loud:
I do want to thank you ever so much for the wonderful pictures you drew of the President and me. Our hearts were truly touched when we received them, and I assure you we are both more than delighted to have them as a special token of your sincere friendship.
With gratitude and very best wishes to you and your family, Mamie Doud Eisenhower”
I was thrilled beyond words. I screamed with excitement as any four-year-old would. I told all of my friends, while my parents called and wrote our relatives.
My parents took it one step further. They contacted several Chicago and Des Plaines local newspapers. Shortly afterwards, a reporter and a photographer came to our house to interview us and take photos of my mother and me with the letter. The newspaper articles were published in late November 1956.
I became an even bigger fan of Ike and Mamie, of course. My parents mailed my Valentine to them in early 1958. I was surprised to receive a second letter from the White House. This treasured letter was written on White House letterhead and signed by the First Lady’s secretary.
First Lady Mamie Eisenhower’s 1956 letter still hangs on my wall to this day. I like Ike…and Mamie.
Diane Henrikson Russell (shown here in a slightly younger photo) joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on leadership, radio, life story writing, Tai Chi, healthy aging, literature, science, politics, sociology, technology, theater, genealogy, and humanities. Diane volunteers as a proofreader for the OLLI class catalog and for OLLI Connects.