Hello, I Must Be Going
For days, the city of Lawrence and the KU community had been anxiously anticipating the moment when President Woodrow Wilson and the First Lady would roll into town aboard their train, the Presidential Special.
To ensure that as many people as possible were able to greet the president and hear his message, W.J. Francisco, mayor of Lawrence, issued an open request for the “citizens of our city to cease their usual business during the hour from nine to ten … while President Wilson is in the city, as a mark of respect to the nation’s chief executive.”
KU Chancellor Frank Strong, responding in kind, announced that “the students of the University ought to see and hear him,” and thus, “they are at liberty to be absent from classes until the hour beginning at 10:30.” Superintendent J.R. Wise of Haskell Institute joined in as well, canceling classes and organizing a military-style honor guard of Native American students, complete with a marching band. Even morning classes at Lawrence grade schools and the local high school were cancelled so younger students could see the president too.
With the temperature hovering around an icy 10 degrees above zero, as many as 4,500 people – reportedly “the largest local crowd in the history of Lawrence” to that time – gathered in the morning snow to await the presidential train. At approximately 9:10 a.m., it pulled into the Santa Fe station. Rising above the raucous cheering, the KU students in attendance welcomed President and Mrs. Wilson with a resounding “Rock Chalk” cheer as the First Couple stepped onto the train’s rear platform. The president enthusiastically replied, “It’s bully!”
“You all know what I came here to say,” he then said, referring to his message of “preparedness.” This campaign, to increase the size of the US Army and Navy in response to potential threats arising from World War I, led the president across western states to rally support. In fact, his stop in Lawrence preceded his delivery of two major speeches on the subject, the first in Topeka and the second back in Kansas City later that day.
Lawrence, however, was just an early twentieth-century version of a drive-by. Wilson’s visit lasted a mere “three minutes and forty-five seconds,” according to a report in the University Daily Kansan. Aside from making a joke about all the steam billowing off the train’s brakes (“Don’t think that this steam is hot air from the party!”) and rhetorically inquiring about the University and the weather, the president said little of substance to the assembled thousands. On the issue of “preparedness,” he simply told the crowd: “I don’t need to talk to you people, you’re all prepared out here.”
And with that, the Presidential Special slowly began moving westward, away from the station. President Wilson removed his hat and waved goodbye. “The throng responded with cheers and much waving of hats,” reported the Kansan, although there was a palpable sense of disappointment at the president’s failure to indulge the crowd’s cries of “Speech! Speech!”
That afternoon, the Kansan ran with the headline “Wilson Only Smiled,” followed by the sub-heading, “No Attempt Made to Tell of Preparedness Plan.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas