Abilene has produced two men who have gone from life in a small, Kansas farming community to working in the White House.
One has a museum named after him and was president from 1953 to 1961. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was born in Texas, was raised in Abilene and then became the 34th president.
The other man, Marlin Fitzwater, came to Hale Library at Kansas State on Wednesday morning to dedicate the opening of the new exhibit honoring him and his work, “Marlin Fitzwater: From the Wheat Fields to White House.”
Fitzwater is a K-State alum who served as press secretary under former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush from 1983 to 1993. He is the only press secretary to have worked under two presidents.
During his hour on Wednesday, he spoke on the Iran-Contra Affair, working with the presidents and first ladies and what life is like working in the public sector.
Before moving to Washington D.C., Fitzwater attended K-State, where he graduated with a degree in journalism in 1965. He joked that things were a little different when he attended.
“I came to K-State because it had a good journalism department,” Fitzwater said. “It was close to home and it was relatively inexpensive. When I came here, tuition was $104. I lived on Bertrand Street in a basement apartment with my friend and rent was $50 a month. He asked if I could afford $25 a month, and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, that’s pretty steep.'”
During his time at K-State, he worked “flipping burgers” in downtown Manhattan, in addition to selling advertisements for the Collegian. He also held jobs at the Abilene Reflector-Chronicle, the Manhattan Mercury and the Topeka Capital-Journal.
When he moved to Washington, he worked for 17 years before making it to his high-ranking position with the president, including working for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation and the Appalachian Regional Commission. It was only when he was needed to “take the heat” in 1983 that he moved up in position. At the time, he was serving as deputy press secretary.
“The press secretary came up to me and said that they needed someone to take the heat for the president. ‘We’re a month away from a recession, we have 10 million unemployed. Can you take the heat?'” Fitzwater said. “And I said yes.”
He went on to work on two presidential political campaigns, the re-elections of both Reagan and Bush. While the former had a happy ending, the latter still sits with Fitzwater.
“There’s nothing like losing a national election,” he said. “Being fired by 40 million people is something you remember; it stings a little.”
Stinging moments, though, are sometimes offset by his memories from the Reagan administration. For example, when Fitzwater fell asleep on Air Force One and Reagan called the White House photographer to take pictures, or when he was locked in a restroom stall and Reagan came to mock him.
“I’ve never told this story in public before,” Fitzwater said as he started the story.
After Reagan had left the waiting area before giving his final graduation speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, Fitzwater said he realized he could not leave the restroom, because the door was stuck. When a Secret Service agent went to get help, Reagan returned to assist Fitzwater.
“He comes in and starts yelling, ‘Marlin, get out! I have to go; the president has to go!'”
During the Reagan era, there were some less-funny moments that Fitzwater encountered, like the Iran-Contra Affair and the invasion of Panama. While national scandals were part of the negatives, he also said the disconnect from the average American takes a toll on those who work in the White House.
“It’s very easy to feel a disconnect, especially in the White House,” he said. “You’re part of a big government group, with the same interest and background, then there’s the White House bubble. You walk into the White House and you turn over your life to the president, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Fitzwater documented his time in the office through diaries and copies of his press releases, which are on display on the fifth floor of Hale. Lori Goetsch, dean of K-State libraries, said the exhibit started after a friend of Fitzwater, who lives in Abilene, suggested it to the library and Fitzwater.
“We knew him as a well-known, famous alum,” Goetsch said. “He was very enthusiastic. We met in person on a couple of occasions on what it would take.”
In addition to papers, there are also photographs and memorabilia from the White House and Fitzwater’s travels, along with copies of his books.
After the Q&A session, students, including Rachael Crosby, senior in secondary education, were able to look around the exhibit. Crosby said she thinks it is a great opportunity for students.
“I think there’s a lot of amazing stuff, considering there’s stuff here you couldn’t even find,” Crosby said. “I was looking at his jacket from Air Force One; that’s something that’s really unique. And getting to look at his old diploma from K-State and to just see the progression is actually really cool that K-State is able to give this opportunity to students.”
“Marlin Fitzwater: From Wheat Fields to White House” is on display until mid-March on the fifth floor of Hale.