Charleroi Area 'Queen' credits family ties for festival honors

| Saturday, March 2, 2013, 8:09 p.m.

Part 3 of 4

As a student at Charleroi High School, Kathryn S. (Kaye) Eisenhower Morgan was a member of the Girls Ensemble and Tri-Hi-Y and enjoyed traditional extracurricular activities.

“My friends and I did all of the things that teenagers did,” said Morgan, a former North Charleroi resident now living in Arroyo Grande, Calif. “Like everyone else, we were great sports enthusiasts. But who wouldn't be, belonging to CHS and following the powerful Cougar football team under Rab Currie. Basketball and football were the big thing in those days, and the high school band directed by Mr. (Edward) Sweadner couldn't be beat. We went to all the school dances, with or without dates, and had a great time.”

Morgan also played piano for various groups in school, and she was a good softball player (pitcher, catcher, first base).

Her graduation from Charleroi High School on June 3, 1952, was anything but routine.

Headlines on Page One of The Charleroi Mail that day called attention to 186 members of the Class of 1952 ready to receive their diplomas in commencement at the CHS Stadium and “Earl Eisenhower Leaves For Abilene Homecoming.”

The traditional commencement article informed readers that the keynote speaker at commencement would be the Honorable Gay H. Brown, former jurist of the state of New York, and that songs would be offered by the High School Trio of Mary Louise Paoly, Lois Zimmerman and Norma Jean Verkleeren, with Patty Gregory as accompanist.

The latter — and lighter — story focused on Morgan's father boarding an airplane at Greater Pittsburgh Airport that morning for festivities honoring his brother, “General Ike,” in Abilene, Kan. Consequently her father was not present at Kaye's graduation.

“As usual, the amiable North Charleroi man deigned to take no honors or bask in the reflected glory of his brother,” the newspaper said of Earl Eisenhower. “Kaye, his pretty teenage daughter, Mrs. Eisenhower and Buddy drove down to the airport very, very early this morning. The family couldn't go to Abilene because Kaye had her own big day upcoming — commencement from Charleroi High tonight.”

The story also emphasized how Kaye received a “delightful surprise last night — a double orchid for commencement.”

“From whom?” The Mail asked. “You guessed it ... Uncle Ike and Aunt Mamie.”

Morgan continued her education at Penn State with pre-med studies. But those plans were interrupted near the end of her freshman year when she was chosen to be Queen of the 26th Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester, Va.

“I was selected because of my family connections, not because of any smarts or good looks,” she said with laughter in her voice. “You had to be related to a celebrity, someone famous to be considered for the honor and being an Eisenhower with an uncle in the White House certainly helped.”

The media thought differently in their coverage of Kaye's reign at the Apple Blossom Festival on April 29 and 30 and May 1. Emphasizing their opinions with numerous photos of her, The Charleroi Mail, The Connellsville Courier and newspapers in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and across the country described her as “the beautiful niece of President Dwight D. Eisenhower ... good looking college freshman ... whose five-feet, seven-inches make for a whistler's delight.”

The Daily News of Harrisonburg, Va., wrote on April 30, 1953: “And for once, Democrats and Republicans were in solid agreement about an Eisenhower. They — and all independents, too — admitted on first sight that brown eyed Kathryn Eisenhower of Charleroi, Pa. possessed all of those gracious and kindly qualities befitting her role as ruler over the Apple Blossom Festival. The folks who run this gigantic show learned something else, much to their delight, when Kathryn confided to reporters that she knows how to bake pies. What kind of pies? Why, apple pies, of course.”

Even radio-television star Arthur Godfrey, who was grand marshal of the festival parade, got into the accolades act when Kaye and her court passed by the reviewing stand in the event that drew some 150,000 people to Winchester on May 1. As the queen's white-tinseled float moved in front of him, Godfrey waved and applauded the women and said of Kaye, “She's a good egg, you know it, and a darned cute girl. She also comes from a mighty nice family.”

Kaye was crowned queen by another distinguished U.S. military hero, retired Army Gen. James A. Van Fleet, who completed his career as commander of the 8th Army and United Nations forces in Korea in 1953. Members of the queen's court were Luciclare Miller, Iver Lou Watson, Mary Jane Bridenbaugh and Cherry Gundry. In addition to Godfrey, other celebrities sharing the spotlight during the celebration included western movie star William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd and his horse Topper.

“It was an unforgettable experience,” Morgan said.

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.

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