This week marks one year since the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, DC, was unveiled. In compliance with the COVID restrictions this year, it has been gratifying to see so many people visit the site, including major media outlets and countless families—young and old. I am looking forward, later this month, to taking the SHAEF veterans who worked at the General’s headquarters during the war through the site. They tell me they are eager to see for themselves how Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Europe, and their “Boss,” is remembered.
As a member of the Eisenhower family and the author of two books on the Eisenhowers, How Ike Led (2020) and Mrs. Ike (1996), the key point of September, however, was never about Ike’s leadership. It was about the tragedy that befell my grandparents when they were young. That was the untimely passing of Ike and Mamie’s three-year-old son, Doud Dwight, affectionately known by his parents as “Ikey” or later “Icky.” He died of Scarlet Fever on January 2, 1921.
My grandfather admitted that the boy’s death was the “worst disaster” of his life. Read about his relationship with his GIs during World War II and you will see that Ike’s own tragedy forged empathy not just for the young men under his command, but also for their parents who might well receive the news of their sons’ deaths in combat.
My grandparents always refused to mark that cold winter day when Icky died. Instead, every year on September 24, the day of his birth, Ike sent Mamie yellow roses, the boy’s favorite color and Mamie’s favorite flower. Even during the war, Ike stopped to remember the day, sometimes with emotional letters to Mamie.
In my book, How Ike Led, I explain that Dwight Eisenhower believed that human beings are more “emotional and sentimental” than they are “intellectual and logical.” The boy’s passing proved this assessment to be right. Ike, in the first term of his presidency, had a heart attack on the date of his son’s birthday and Mamie had a stroke that would prove terminal on the night of September 24-25, fifty-eight years after Icky was born. Ike described Mamie’s reaction to their son’s passing “as grief that would break the hardest of hearts.” And Mamie fully recognized why Ike could not even talk about the boy’s death; “it hurt him so much,” she told me.
I saw my grandparents’ grief, still present decades after my uncle’s passing. The boy’s photograph was positioned in one of the bedrooms in their home in Gettysburg, and references were sometimes made to him—and his absence could be felt especially at Christmas.
Some of this loss was focused on what might have been. Other elements of it must have related to guilt. The boy contracted the illness from a “mother’s helper” who had been exposed to the infection and failed to disclose it. Mamie must have also felt a sense of helplessness. At the time, she was sick with what the doctor thought was pneumonia. She was not able to say goodbye or hold their son in his final hours, though Ike managed to defy quarantine and do so. Access to the boy was limited, and at that time—before antibiotics—the disease could be fatal.
My grandmother talked to me about this sad chapter in their lives in her last years, and I could hear in her voice the lingering pain. My grandparents’ experience makes me wonder how America today will cope with the passing of those who contracted COVID-19 and died—some 675,000 of them or 1 in every 500 Americans, as of this writing. I am sure these losses will be especially difficult for the families of the victims who resisted the call to get vaccinated. And it will haunt family members who know their loved ones died alone. Denial may be a reflexive emotion at first, but it will likely begin to fade. The passing of a loved one, however, especially one who dies before his/her time, never goes away.
For me, September now has elements of both joy and satisfaction, but it will always remain a moment of reflection. Doud Dwight was a charming little boy, and one wonders what remarkable things he might have done with his life if he had lived.
All the best,