Illustration by Sergio Ingravalle.

Illustration by Sergio Ingravalle.

MICHIGAN MUSINGS: The Day I Met LBJ

by Carol Knecht Gerich, ’64 | Spring 2018

My mother was convinced that the only reason I broke ranks and became the sole Democrat in a family of fervent Republicans was the special kiss I received during my 1964 graduation.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson delivered the commencement address that day in late May, accepting an invitation originally extended to President John F. Kennedy to speak at Michigan’s graduation ceremonies.

By wonderful coincidence, my own Republican grandfather, Roscoe O. Bonisteel, was also on the graduation podium with Johnson. Like our new president, he was receiving an honorary doctorate of laws during the 120th commencement. Grandpa, a longtime U-M regent, had been nicknamed the Father of North Campus for his role in securing the site for the expanding university and later became the namesake of the main boulevard on that campus.

In contrast, I was a somewhat undistinguished young undergraduate—honored that day only for completing my four years on time—and looking forward to my future career as an English teacher. I remember it was a very warm day as I sat in Michigan Stadium and listened intently to our new president, only six months into his term, as he spoke of lofty goals for all Americans and promised enormous strides in civil rights during his administration. Only later did I understand that I had witnessed Johnson’s very famous “Great Society” speech.

After the ceremonies, I left the crowded stadium, looking for my grandfather among the 90,000 attendees so we could share our special day. I spotted him nearby, and he beckoned to me, his first grandchild, to come over to meet the president. Totally in awe, I joined Grandpa and turned to greet Johnson. I managed to reach out my right hand for a handshake and to stumble out the words, “Congratulations, Mr. President, on your doctorate.”

A very tall man with dash and charm, Johnson looked down at me and smiled. As he bent over my extended hand, he raised it to his lips for a gentlemanly kiss. Then, he said with great seriousness, “No, it is you who deserve congratulations. You had to work for your degree.”

By a second wonderful coincidence, a photographer from the Toledo Blade caught the moment of my most unique–and favorite–kiss. The next day’s edition carried my photo on the front page under the banner “Double Thrill for Graduate.” Also in the photo are U-M President Harlan Hatcher and, of course, my grandfather.

The photo now sits in my den, in a place of honor. I still like to refer to this happy twist of fate to entertain at family gatherings, parties, and even in my teaching at the university level.

I have proudly voted Democratic ever since 1964. Yet I never convinced my mother that I abandoned decades-long family political preferences because of deeply held differences in values and priorities. Mom still insisted that I was swayed by that one kiss from a smooth Democratic president.

 


Carol Knecht Gerich, ’64, had a long career that hopscotched between writing and teaching. Now retired, she served as communications manager for the University of California and as an instructor at San Francisco State University.

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