As Eisenhower memorial opens, his granddaughters remember 'treasured' bond

Susan and Mary Jean Eisenhower recalled their memories of the late president with Jenna Bush Hager, as well as the tragic loss he shared with George H.W. Bush.
/ Source: TODAY

The granddaughters of Dwight D. Eisenhower have shared a lesser-known side of the former president on the day the man who led the pivotal D-Day invasion at Normandy during World War II receives the "unimaginable honor" of a memorial in our nation's capital.

Susan and Mary Jean Eisenhower spoke with another granddaughter of a former president, TODAY's Jenna Bush Hager, about their memories of "Ike" and the tragic loss he shared with Jenna's late grandfather, George H.W. Bush.

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Jenna also received a sneak peek at the bronze statues honoring the nation's 34th president, which will be dedicated on Thursday night at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

"First of all, he never expected it. I know that for sure," Susan Eisenhower said.

"It's an unimaginable honor," Mary Jean Eisenhower added. "And I just hope that somewhere upstairs, he somehow knows."

The new Dwight D. Eishenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., will open Thursday.The Washington Post via Getty Images

Both granddaughters have dedicated their time to maintaining their grandfather's legacy since his death in 1969. Susan is the author of "How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower's Biggest Decisions," while Mary Jean is the former head of People to People International, the humanitarian organization started by Eisenhower.

The two were young girls during Eisenhower's post-war presidency.

"The White House was home," Mary Jean said. "And it was Mimi and Granddad's home, and I was surprised to find out that no, he was just a temporary tenant."

The two recalled Eisenhower's grandfatherly support, as well as his tenderness during difficult times.

"I really treasure the relationship I had with him over riding his horses," Susan said. "I once won a walk, trot competition. I won a trophy, a little tiny trophy like this very dinky (thing), and about two weeks after that, I didn't even realize it was gone, but two weeks after that he presented it to me — he had it put on a pedestal. And it looked like the most important thing that had ever been won by anybody, and that's really one of my treasured possessions."

Mary Jean remembered her grandfather consoling her after a devastating loss.

"I had a friend in school, and she died, very suddenly, and I was just reeling, and I was sitting on the porch one time, and he didn't ask me what was wrong - I think he already knew," Mary Jean said. "And he just said, 'She hasn't gone away, she's all around you, she's out there where you used to play.'

"And I just remember putting my head on his chest and hearing his heartbeat, and being so reassured, like the world was going to be OK because I heard his heartbeat."

President Dwight D. Eisenhower with his family in Palm Desert, California, in 1965. MPI / Getty Images

Eisenhower's compassion was rooted in the loss of his firstborn son, Doud Dwight, whom he and wife Mamie affectionately called "Icky." The boy died in Eisenhower's arms of scarlet fever when he was just 4 years old in 1921.

Bush experienced similar heartbreak when he and his wife, Barbara, lost their daughter Robin at 3 years old to leukemia in 1954.

For both men, it was a hole in their hearts that stayed with them for a lifetime.

"Throughout all those years that followed the memory of those bleak days was a deep inner pain that never went away," Eisenhower once said.

"I think that's very definitely true," Susan said. "I think it was so significant that on Sept. 24 - that's the date of Doud Dwight's birthday - Eisenhower had his heart attack in 1955. And while many scholars seem to think that it was the frustration of the job, I think it was the heavy feeling of the day."

As the nation gets set to immortalize their grandfather, the women were asked what he would think of the state of America today.

"Well, I think he'd be obviously very concerned with the deep divisions in this country," Susan said. "He had a very, very strict policy which is called 'no personalities.' He would not get up and ever disparage anybody whether he agreed with them or not.

"You can't get anybody to cooperate if you insult them publicly, and he used that tool repeatedly during his wartime years and as president United States."