When the president of the United States comes to town, everyone remembers. But people don’t always remember the remarks the president made or even why he came—sometimes the logistics of his arrival and departure are what stick in people’s minds.
That was the case when President Bill Clinton visited Champaign-Urbana in 1998. Clinton spoke to a full house at the Assembly Hall just days after his State of the Union address. His speech went smoothly, but his flight out of Willard Airport did not. When the pilot of Air Force One turned a tad too sharply and drove off the taxiway, the plane got stuck in the mud. Clinton had to de-board and depart on a backup jet. It took bulldozers, dozens of workers, and the better part of the day to get the first plane back on the asphalt. The story made national news.
A fourth of all U.S. presidents have visited Champaign-Urbana—either while in office or before or after their years as president. Their time here is the focus of this episode of Illinois Pioneers, broadcast on WILL-TV at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 25, 2010.
The episode explores visits of presidents as well as first ladies such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Host John Paul shares photos of the visits and interviews Al Griggs and Jon Rector who helped plan and manage presidential visits. Griggs, a former assistant principal of Centennial High, organized President Gerald Ford’s visit when Ford spoke at the school. Rector, a former marketing director at Willard Airport, helped manage the Air Force One incident. Both say the experience of meeting the president was one of the most memorable of their lives—both for the privilege of hosting the president and for the funny things that happened along the way.
The first to visit was Abraham Lincoln, who before he was president sat for a portrait in Urbana in 1857. President Taft passed through on his way to Springfield and reviewed the troops, and Teddy Roosevelt, a past president at the time, spoke to 18,000 people crowded in Westside Park. Neither President Truman nor President Eisenhower got off the train when they came to Champaign-Urbana; both stopped and spoke at the depot on their whistle stop tours of the country. Presidents Nixon, Kennedy, Ford, Carter and Obama have also come through town either before or during their presidencies.