WASHINGTON, D.C. — Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States, had a broad understanding of American faith practices.
From birth in Kansas in 1890, he belonged to his mother’s small Mennonite sect, the River Brethren. He didn’t identify with a denomination after he began his military service when he graduated from West Point in 1915, but he joined National Presbyterian Church in Washington, at the urging of the Rev. Billy Graham, the evangelist, during his first term, and he remains the only president to be baptized while in office.
It was during Eisenhower’s administration that “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance after a national campaign from the Knights of Columbus, and he comfortably used the term Judeo-Christian when explaining American religious values to Russian diplomats.
And so, for the groundbreaking of his national memorial on the National Mall Nov. 2, when the invocation came from a Catholic priest and military veteran, Father Leo Blasi of Hays, Kansas, that undoubtedly would have pleased Eisenhower as well.
Blasi, 54, is a former resident of Abilene, Kansas, Eisenhower’s hometown. He is the associate pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Hays. He came to his vocation late, after his wife, Elana Lynn, died in 2011 and after he’d considered joining the diaconate. A graduate of Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, he has six children and three grandchildren.
His former parish, St. Andrews in Abilene, is across the street from the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.
But his connection that most appealed to the commission for the memorial was “to the military,” he explained. “Not necessarily to the Eisenhowers.”
Blasi, whose family has a long tradition of military service, spent 29 years as an Army helicopter pilot, from 1985 to 2014. Eleven of those years were on active duty, with the rest in the Army National Guard.
He was a maintenance test pilot at Fort Riley, Kansas, and was deployed to Bosnia from 2002 to 2003 and to Iraq, where he flew a Blackhawk helicopter evacuating wounded soldiers, from 2009 to 2010.
Mack Teasley, a former executive director of the Eisenhower Foundation and deputy director of the library in Abilene, suggested him to Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, who chairs the Eisenhower Memorial Commission.
“Throughout history,” Blasi said in his invocation, “nations have built monuments to deify their great leaders.” But in America, “we build monuments to shining examples of service to our country and its people.” The Eisenhower Memorial, he concluded, would be “a reminder of what it means to be an American.”
Eisenhower, supreme allied commander in Europe during World War II and briefly the president of Columbia University after the war, served two terms as president, from 1953 to 1961. He died in 1969.
The groundbreaking featured many homages to the bipartisanship of an earlier age.
“Ike’s values were American values — strength, humility, discipline, integrity,” said Roberts. “Now we live in an era where it can seem those things no longer matter. But they do. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.”
Granddaughter Susan Eisenhower also praised her grandfather’s “simple values” of “patriotism, humility, fairness.”
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, expected to cost $150 million and designed by architect Frank Gehry, is scheduled to open on the National Mall May 8, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the surrender of Germany in World War II.