By Ken Bradbury
Sarah Bunfill said that it was hard to concentrate on her biology assignment with Secret Service agents in the room. Sarah was a student at Triopia on the day President Ronald Reagan plopped down his Marine One helicopter onto the Triopia football field for a speech at the John Werries farm. To my knowledge it’s the only time we’ve had a U.S. President visit the school, discounting the countless old homesteads that claim to have hosted Abraham Lincoln.
My Lincoln Land Community College theatre class has spent a couple months interviewing Triopia area folks in preparation for a play telling the story of how Chapin, Concord and Arenzville came together to form the present school. One of the questions was, “What’s your most vivid memory of Triopia?” and the Reagan visit often tops the lists of those we interviewed.
Perhaps the most memorable event of that week was the consternation on the face of coach Don Kemp when it was announced that someone would be landing two helicopters on his football field during homecoming. In the those hoary days even birds were afraid to land on Kemp’s field and the prospect of several tons of machinery putting dents in his grass was more than Coach could take. Rumor has it that he informed the Secret Service they’d have to find another spot. Further rumor states that that Kemp met his match in the U.S. Secret Service, for both Reagan’s helicopter and its backup alit on the field one brisk morning.
The boys from the Secret Service had spent most of the week at Triopia inspecting classrooms, interviewing farmers who lived along the route of Reagan’s limousine, attending Triopia football games and listening carefully for any hint of anarchy, and setting up their communications system. In these pre-cell phone days extra land lines had to be strung into the school. I can remember that NBC, ABC, and Mike Wallace’s boy, Chris, commandeered the room next to mine. We all thought it was pretty cool to have dark-suited men in the building all week although the whole thing was a bit spooky.
The White House informed Triopia that we were to have one and only one person in the building when the President landed, so our custodian, Dick Lippert was chosen. Dick was warned not to take any pictures, so I gave him the school’s video camera and he filmed from a darkened classroom. Dick said that Reagan didn’t come into the school, but Governor Jim Thompson came in to tinkle. Dick didn’t catch that part on film. However, he did come away with a black and white video of the copter landing, the handshaking, Reagan climbing into his armored car, and the Secret Service boys running alongside until it picked up too much speed to tag along.
Every road, lane, driveway, and wide place in the road was commandeered by a state or local policeman along the route and on that particular day Morgan county’s most heavily-traveled two-land high way had only one motorcade.
I can remember standing in a very wet and chilly field awaiting the President’s arrival south of Concord. Principal Steve McCarty and I were first in line and I had to go through the security check three times until they discovered that the tinfoil from a stick of Juicy Fruit gum was setting off the metal detector. President Ron was all smiles when he climbed out of his limo at the Werries farm and after more hand shaking and waving he gave a speech on topic that I’ve now forgotten and I suspect he has, too. Then we came to the highlight of the day when the Gipper crawled into the cab of John Werries’ John Deere and the two made a couple of laps through the mud for the benefit of the press. The original plans called for a longer ride but the previous day’s rain caused mucky problems that even the White House couldn’t solve.
Meanwhile back at the school, Dick the janitor had made friends with the Marines guarding the Prez’s chopper and he’d been given his own private tour, picking up some presidential matchbooks and playing cards for his efforts. When Reagan returned to Kemp’s landing pad Marine One was having digestive problems so he took off in Marine Two. Mrs. Bunfill said that when they came out to decorate for homecoming in the day they got a tour as well.
It’s a day we’ll long remember and it never hurts to have the Secretary of Agriculture, Larry Werries, from your school district.
Footnote: Kemp survived the landing. He was a former Marine.