Mother of Dwight D. Eisenhower
By Anne Adams
As General Dwight D. Eisenhower planned and then directed the Allied assault on D Day, June 6, 1944 , it was the high point in a long military career that would later lead to the presidency. Yet what was interesting and even ironic was that his family’s religious heritage did not support his profession, for his parents and in particular his mother were devoted pacifists.
Ida Stover Eisenhower was born May 1, 1862 in the community of Sidney in Virginia ‘s Shenandoah Valley with the Civil War raging nearby. Though she was but an infant at the time her life would be greatly affected by the devastation wrought to fields and farms by the battling armies.
Ida’s mother died when she was quite young and while her father would live but a few more years, he did leave enough savings that would provide a modest inheritance to his seven sons and one daughter when they turned 21. At his death Ida and her siblings were raised by her maternal grandparents, in a somber and parsimonious atmosphere that Ida left when she was sixteen. While with her guardians she memorized 1,365 verses of the Bible in six months in a competition and she always treasured the medal she won. There was another side effect for from then on she could readily quote an appropriate scripture to fit any situation She moved to Staunton , Virginia to do domestic work in exchange for room and board, and take advantage of the opportunity to continue her high school education. She taught for a while, and when she received her father’s bequest at age 21 she invested in a piano which would remain a lifelong treasure.
The Stover family (as well as the Eisenhowers) were descendents of German immigrants who had come to America in the 1740s, bringing their religion with them. They were affiliated with the Mennonites, though they called their group the Brethren in Christ and sometimes they were known as “River Brethren” since they immersed in freshwater. They were generally farmers, known for their hard work and the prosperity of their farms, but they were also dedicated pacifists.
Ida was anxious to further her education and in an era when few young women did so, she decided she wanted to go to college. She heard that her church had established a college in Kansas and that they accepted female students, so she joined some relatives in moving to that area.
This was Lane University in LeCompton, Kansas and it was there that Ida met and fell in love with fellow student David Eisenhower, sixteen months younger than she was. They were married in the college chapel on September 23, 1885 .
David’s father was a prosperous local farmer and was anxious to support the young couple, so as he had done with his other children, he gave them a sizable grant of cash and a farm. Yet David was not interested in agriculture and instead established a retail store in Hope. When his business failed to thrive, he brought in a partner who took off with their funds, and sent the young couple into deep debt, The lawyer who was brought in to settle accounts took all they owned except Ida’s piano. This left the young Eisenhower with two aversions – to lawyers and to further debt.
They had already had one son, and Ida was expecting another baby, but the only work David could find was as a mechanic on the railroad. However, it meant moving to Denison, Texas and there on October 14, 1890 their third son was born. He was first named David Dwight, but they soon switched the order of the names to avoid a mix-up with the father. However, two years later the Eisenhowers moved to Abilene, Kansas where David went to work in a creamery operated by a brother-in-law. There Dwight and his brothers would grow up and Ida and David remain.
They settled in a large house with an acreage and there Ida designed and enforced an organized routine to get all the chores done and to keep five boys busy.
Funds were limited but as Eisenhower later commented: “All we knew is that our parents – of great courage – could say to us: ‘ Opportunity is all around you. Reach out and take it.'”
The Eisenhower boys were encouraged to think independently and their parents would not pressure them into any pre-selected goals, Though David and Ida had distinctly different personalities they were united in this desire to nurture the boys to make their own life plans. David had a fierce and at times violent temper, making his boys frightened of him and Ida was a contrast with her joyful, cheerful and optimistic approach to life and to child raising. She could spank where necessary but it was David who was the disciplinarian of the family, and he did not hesitate to harsh physical punishment. Eisenhower later contrasted them: “His sullen father, who communicated with his strap, ‘had quick judicial instincts,’ His sensitive mother, ‘ had, like a psychologist, insight into the fact that each son was a unique personality and she adapted to the methods of each.'” (Faith of Our Mothers by Harold I. Gullan – p. 226). The youngest son Milton, later to become a prominent educator, summarized it this way: “‘Father and Mother complemented each other. Mother had the personality. She had the joy. Dad had the authority.'” (Gullan).
In one particular incident Dwight Eisenhower learned the futility of extreme anger. He had not been allowed to go trick or treating with his brothers one Halloween because he was considered too young so he erupted in an angry fit, pummeling a convenient tree till his fists bled. David responded with a whipping, but afterward after Dwight had been exiled to his room, Ida arrived to lovingly care for his injured hands and offer some gentle Scriptural advice against such unrestrained anger. He later called that “‘one of the most important moments in my life'” and it served as an encouragement to contain future angry outbursts.
When it came time to think of college, Dwight decided a military academy might be the way to go since funds were limited. He applied for a West Point application and was accepted. His peaceloving mother quietly told him: “It’s your choice,” and only when he was on his way did she finally break down and cry. As a biographer put it: “Lawyers only cheated people, soldiers killed them. Yet in time Ida Eisenhower, whom Ike viewed as the most sincere pacifist he had ever known, learned to accept her son’s career and even take pride of it. But, of course, she was proud of all her sons.” (Gullen, p. 229). Actually, her sons all attained professional success and some of them national prestige: Arthur was a banker, Edgar a lawyer, Roy was a druggist, Earl was an engineer and journalist and Milton was a college president.
All of the Eisenhower sons and their families returned for David and Ida’s 50th anniversary in 1935 in a time when the couple was more financially secure than some of their neighbors in the midst of the national depression.
After David’s death in 1942, Ida’s memory began to fail and she needed help at home, but she had no trouble recognizing her illustrious son when he returned home for a brief visit in 1944. Two years later, she passed away and Ike’s praise was specific, identifying her “serenity, her open smile, her gentleness with all and her tolerance of their way.”
Despite her philosophical difference with her son’s profession, in her own way Ida had given her son the stability and vision that would enable him to succeed not only professionally and nationally but for the betterment of humankind. And that would perhaps be Ida’s own preference for her true legacy through her sons.
Anne Adams is a writer/teacher in Houston, Texas. She has published in Christian and secular publications and her book “Brittany, Child of Joy” was issued by Broadman Press in 1986.