The black limousines pulled onto Fleming Avenue on a lazy Sunday in July 1958, and the commotion soon drew a crowd from those enjoying the Baker Park pool on a sunny afternoon. Who were all the men in dark coats and ties and sunglasses that surrounded the house? Was that the President and first lady getting out of the car?
Yes, it was. President Dwight Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower had decided to pay a surprise birthday visit to Beverly Byron on their drive back from Camp David. She, her husband Goodloe, and her two boys entertained the first couple during the brief stop.
Frederick knows Beverly Byron, 84, as its long-time local congresswoman who served the Sixth Congressional District from 1979 to 1993, after the death of Goodloe Byron. But Bev’s brushes with historical figures began as a child, continued as a young woman, and were revealed during a recent interview in Bev’s home near Baker Park, where she has lived since the 1950s. She and her husband, B. Kirk Walsh, divide their time between Frederick and Washington, D.C.
The family friendship with the Eisenhowers began in the 1930s. Washington, D.C. had a small-town feel before World War II, and Bev’s parents — Ruth and Harry Butcher — met a young Maj. Dwight Eisenhower, and his wife Mamie, in social circles. A pioneer in the burgeoning radio industry, Bev’s father had opened the CBS office in Washington in 1929, then served as manager and later vice president at WJSV (now WUSA9). In 1933, it was Harry Butcher who coined the phrase “fireside chat” to describe a national radio telecast by President Franklin Roosevelt.
Eating lunch with the president
Bev, born in 1932, was just a little girl during this time, but she had her own lofty orbits. Living in Washington D. C., she walked to kindergarten with Bill Marriott (chairman of the board of Marriott International), who grew up across the street. A childhood friend of Diana Hopkins, (the daughter of FDR presidential adviser Harry Hopkins), Bev played regularly at the White House. “We would swim in the pool, and duck our heads under the water when the Secret Service came through, as if they wouldn’t know we were there,” reminisced Bev. Arriving home one day after a White House visit, her mother asked if she’d eaten lunch. “Yes, Diana and I ate lunch, and Eleanor and the president ate lunch with us.”
CBS, like other prominent organizations, maintained hotel suites for the use of its executives, and the Butchers took up residence in the Wardman Park Hotel (now the Marriott Wardman Park) on Connecticut Avenue. During this era, many notable figures stayed there, including Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Vice President Henry Wallace. In the late 1940s, Bev would see President Truman arriving up the back elevator, because he was a regular at a poker game with political operative George E. Allen (who was Bev’s godfather), and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Fred Vinson, who were also residents.
The U.S. entered World War II in December 1941. Harry Butcher, an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, was called up for active duty in June 1942, perhaps expecting to work stateside in public relations. One night Harry received a phone call from Ruth, who was having dinner with Ike and Mamie at Fort Myer in Virginia. Ruth told Harry that the Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, had appointed Ike as U.S. Commanding General in Europe, and Ike wanted Harry to go with him.
Butcher later recounted: “What he (Ike) wanted was an old friend around to whom he could talk eye to eye, without having to worry about subservience.” Bev explained further: “Ike wanted someone who understood the media.” Butcher dealt with the press throughout the war, but Bev emphasized it was far different than today: “There was a sense by the press at that time that things that were secret needed to remain secret.”
Eisenhower also wanted Butcher to keep a daily journal, because Ike knew he wouldn’t have time to do so. Butcher later turned his detailed diaries into a 1946 best-seller, “My Three Years With Eisenhower.”
Harry Butcher became the friend Ike needed to help relieve the pressures of the war, and he was always nearby as Ike gained prominence, becoming the commander of all Allied forces in Europe. It was Harry’s job to take care of the steady string of visitors to the Allied commander — English Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery; Generals George Patton, Omar Bradley, and Mark Clark; Secretary of War Henry Stimson; and many others.
Butcher’s wartime contacts weren’t confined to political and military leaders. He described a July 1942 lunch in London with Ed Murrow, Bob Trout, and Charles Collingwood, all former CBS associates.
When Butcher made an arduous journey to the United States in early 1943 without Ike, he was in demand. Steve Early, the president’s press secretary and a close personal friend, visited the Butchers at the Wardman Park right away. Harry reported in at the newly-constructed Pentagon, and it was no less than General George C. Marshall who wanted a briefing. Harry traveled to San Antonio, Texas, to visit Mamie and her mother. He visited John Eisenhower, a cadet at West Point.
President Roosevelt called Harry to the White House so he could hear how Ike, his commanding general, was doing. Harry recounted: “The President greeted me with the exclamation that nothing pleased him more than to realize that the Navy was taking care of a general.”
On the home front
Bev’s memory of that wartime visit has a different emphasis: “Just before the war started we got a convertible, which was hard to do later because of war production. I remember driving my father back to National Airport in the convertible.”
After General Eisenhower had left for Europe, Mamie Eisenhower moved in with the Butchers at the Wardman Park. Some time later, a nearby apartment opened up, so Bev and her mother moved across the hall from Mamie. Bev remembers her mother and Mamie playing mah jong and cards, especially bridge, poker and gin rummy, for relaxation.
Mamie (and thus Ruth and Bev) received numerous war-time visitors while Ike was overseas. Bev recounts the time that French General Charles de Gaulle (later president of France) came to call. “I ran up the back stairs and remember telling mother that he is so tall, and he is wearing a red hat.”
Contact between families at home and loved ones in wartime theaters overseas was sporadic. Letters would come, but occasionally had “large holes in them” (due to censorship), said Bev. “It was my job to wrap up Bobby Burns cigars (Cuban tobacco) to send to Europe for my father.”
In his writing, Bev’s father pointed out the competing thoughts of the home front when he quoted from a letter he had received from his mother (Bev’s grandmother): “It’s nice about Gen. Eisenhower’s fifth star. The price of eggs is 60 cents.” Overseas, thoughts of home were never far away. A long diary account by Harry Butcher describing the war in Italy, written from Algiers on July 27, 1943, begins with two simple words: “(Beverly’s birthday).”
Harry Butcher is seen in a number of famous wartime photographs: Eisenhower talking to U.S. airborne troops the evening before D-Day, just before they took off for Normandy; and standing just behind the table as the Germans surrender to the Allies at Rheims, France.
Butcher was dispatched to Berlin to attend the surrender of the Germans to the Russians. Afterwards, the Russians hosted a ceremonial banquet, and he noticed that the napkins were torn pieces of bed sheets, a reminder of the hardships the Russians had endured. “I tucked it into my pocket as a souvenir for Beverly.” The large napkin, complete with her father’s chalk doodles, as well as the famous photographs, today hang on the walls of Bev’s Frederick home.
‘Khrushchev slept in my bed’
When General Eisenhower and her father returned triumphantly from Europe in June 1945, Bev rode in the parade for Eisenhower down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. Her father recounts the next day: “General Ike and I had to get an early start to the airport for the flight to New York for the celebration on Tuesday. My 13-year-old daughter got my breakfast, then hurriedly dressed to ride to the airport with us — probably the fastest ride in her career. She forgot her own breakfast. All was well, though, as she was heard to remark: ‘I figured it wouldn’t do me any harm at all to be seen with Uncle Ike.’”
Bev and her family’s close relationship with the Eisenhowers continued after the war. Ruth Butcher remained a close friend of Mamie’s and was a regular visitor to Camp David while Ike was president. So regular that after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited Camp David, Ruth, who had been there the weekend before and the weekend following, exclaimed: “Khrushchev slept in my bed.”
Bev and Ruth were platform guests for both the Eisenhower inaugurations in 1953 and 1957. On the eve of JFK’s inauguration in 1961, Washington was hit by a major snowstorm. “Mamie had been visiting mother and had difficulty getting back to the White House because of the snow,” recalled Bev.
Later, the White House halls Bev rambled as a child in the 1930s and as guest of the Eisenhowers in the 1950s, she graced during her career as a member of Congress. “I’ve interacted with every president since 1932 except this one [Obama],” she recounted.
The little girl who lunched with FDR, watched Truman come up the back elevator to play cards, and who then served with presidents herself, has certainly lived a lot of history.
Don DeArmon is an award-winning freelance writer living in Frederick. He is working on a book about General George C. Marshall and Congress.