Just thirteen days before the Presidential election of 1956, Vice President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat arrived in Champaign aboard a special Illinois Central train bound from Carbondale to Chicago. The Vice President was invited by the Champaign County GOP and was stumping for President Eisenhower over former Illinois Governor and 1952 presidential foe, Adlai Stevenson. Eisenhower's re-election campaign in 1956 was viewed by many as an eventuality given the incredible popularity of the incumbent president. In 1955 his popularity ranged between 69% and 78% according to gallop polling. However, there was some uneasiness following Eisenhower's major heart attack in September 1955. There were also speculations that Ike was looking to replace Nixon as his Vice President. Still, in August 1956, the Republican ticket was finalized by the renomination of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, who had future presidential aspirations.
This visit was the second trip to the twin cities for Vice President Nixon. On Thursday, October 21, 1954, Nixon spoke to a crowd outside the University YMCA on Wright Street at the same location nearly 8,000 heard Ohio Senator Robert Taft campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1952. At the time, speeches were banned from the University of Illinois property, so speaking on Wright Street seems the next best option to attract students. At that event, Governor Stratton introduced Vice President Nixon, where he stumped for the midterm election of GOP Senate Candidate Joe Meek and other down-ballot Republicans.
For this second visit, plans were made for the Vice Presidents' speech to be made from a temporary platform constructed at the northeast corner of Main and Chestnut Streets in Downtown Champaign, just north of the Illinois Central Passenger Terminal. Champaign Police were on hand to support the efforts of the U.S. Secret Service.
The stop in Champaign was the third day of Nixon's first whistlestop tour of the 1956 campaign. The Nixons had previously visited a total of 33 states on the campaign trail.
The schedule for his first railroad whistlestop was:
Monday, October 22: On New York Central Railroad to Saginaw Michigan, Lapeer (transfer to Grand Trunk Western Railroad) to Imlay City, Pontiac, Fenton, Flint (overnight in Flint)
Tuesday, October 23: On the GTW to Lansing, Battle Creek, (transfer to NYCRR) to Kalamazoo, Niles, South Bend (transfer to GTWRR) to Chicago (overnight on Illinois Central to Carbondale, Illinois)
Wednesday, October 24: Carbondale (Illinois Central Railroad), Centralia, Champaign, Kankakee, Chicago
Nixon emerged from the train and was greeted by 35 members of various east central Illinois Republican parties.
His remarks focused on reminding the crowd of the countries prosperity of the past four years. He focused on the experience of President Eisenhower and touted him "as dedicated and supremely qualified" while labeling Stevenson as "inexperienced and untried."
The Daily Illini captured the speech in an article the following day.
After the trip, Richard and Pat remarked on the train after the rally that they enjoyed their visit and felt the crowds were "wonderful."
They were especially pleased with the student turnout leading Mrs. Nixon to remark on the "homemade signs," including the "Welcome Dick" and "Vote for Dick" signs prepared the Illini Young Republicans.
Pat Nixon went on to say about the signs "I thought they were much better than those manufactured signs" in reference to the printed Stevenson-Kefauver posters displayed by a small group of Illini Young Democrats.
Overall, the brief visit was well received. Eisenhower and Nixon ultimately prevailed in a landslide victory with 457 electoral votes for the GOP ticket and 73 for the Democrats. Adlai Stevenson even lost in his home state of Illinois by more than 800,000 votes. The campaign and the next four years ultimately propelled Nixon to be the GOP presidential candidate in 1960 where he narrowly lost to John F. Kennedy in part because of the close results here in Illinois.
Photo Credit: Robert Meyer Collection at the Chamapign County History Museum