Ike’s secret visit to Rochester

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bob Hope, center, take part in the September 1965 groundbreaking for Eisenhower College. Also pictured, from left, are John Rosenkrans, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Earl McGrath and Scott Skinner. (Photo: File photo 1965)

Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bob Hope, center, take part in the September 1965 groundbreaking for Eisenhower College in Seneca Falls. Also pictured, from left, are John Rosenkrans, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Earl McGrath and Scott Skinner. (Photo: File photo 1965)

As seen in The Presidential Visits Series in its entirety: James Monroe to Donald Trump, 16 sitting presidents have definitely visited Rochester. Can we now add President Dwight Eisenhower who sometime between 1958 and 1960 almost surely met with senior management at Kodak on a classified trip with no public appearances?

Recently, we received a letter from Scott D. Hicks who grew up in Brighton and now lives in Vermont.  Scott read  October 23rd and 24th, 1952 when Ike and Adlai were in town back to back. And School 29. and offered a testimonial that his father, Dr. H. Frank Hicks Jr., an engineer at Kodak, was told of the visit that — apparently — remained entirely secret until 2011.

In non-exhaustive research, Michael Nighan and myself found no written evidence of the trip. Hicks was not himself at the meeting but was later told of its existence. As far as we know no eyewitnesses have written of Eisenhower’s visit. Ultimately, right now, we can’t — and probably never can — absolutely verify that Ike was here. But based upon Hick’s reputable career at Kodak, there is no reason to discount his account.

For further possible evidence,  in 1999 Rochester History published Richard E. Holl’s “Marion B. Folsom and The Rochester Plan of 1931.”  Folsom had been the Kodak Treasurer but resigned to become the Secretary of Health Education and Welfare in Eisenhower’s cabinet from 1955 to 1958.  In 1958, Folsom was back at Kodak. Perhaps one secondary aspect of the Rochester trip was the opportunity for Eisenhower and Folsom to meet.

— from Scott D. Hicks

My father, Dr. H. Frank Hicks, Jr., told me in 2011 that President Eisenhower had visited Eastman Kodak sometime between 1958 and 1960. It may have been a classified trip with no public appearances. The purpose of the trip, according to my father, was to meet with senior management at Kodak to discuss the development of the camera system for the Gambit seriesof reconnaissance satellites. The Gambit satellites carried America’s first high resolution cameras in space. The first successful launch was in July, 1963. The Gambit program was highly classified until 2011. In September of that year the National Reconnaissance Office held an event at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the NRO, and to declassify the Gambit and Hexagon reconnaissance satellite programs. My father was invited to attend, along with about 4,000 other people, because he had been the program manager at Kodak responsible for the design, manufacture, and deployment of the Gambit camera systems. He was allowed to invite one guest to the dinner, so I went with him. After the dinner he told me that President Eisenhower had met with senior management at Kodak during his visit to Rochester.

I know that the visit occurred sometime between March, 1958, and the end of Eisenhower’s term as President in January, 1961 because my father’s assignment to lead Kodak’s portion of the reconnaissance camera program began in March, 1958. It was not called Gambit at the time. That code name came later, probably in 1960. My dad said that in 1960 after Gary Powers was shot down in his U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, the spy satellite program “went black” which meant that discussion about the work was highly restricted. He was prohibited from discussing the project even if he was asked to do so by most senior management at Kodak.

Until 2011 my father was never allowed to tell anyone outside of the program about his work, including my mother, my siblings, and me. All we knew at the time was that he was working on classified government projects that had something to do with defense. My mother passed away in 1999 never knowing what her husband had worked on for so many years. He had to travel frequently, especially to California. My mother took care of their three children by herself for many weeks every year in the 1950s and 60s.

At the NRO dinner in 2011 we were able to spend some time with Leslie Mitchell, who I believe was the lead engineer on the team that designed the Gambit camera system. Leslie and his wife Lillian were some of my parents’ closest friends. Les passed away in 2012.

One of the rare projects that my dad was able to talk about while it was going on were the Lunar Orbiter missions to the moon in 1966 and 1967. Under the direction of Dr. William Feldman Kodak engineers designed and manufactured the camera system for the five Lunar Orbiters that photographed about 99% of the lunar surface. The primary purpose was to identify sites where the Apollo astronauts could land.

My father worked at Kodak from the time he was hired as an entry level engineer in 1951 until he retired in 1981 as Director of Research and Engineering for the Kodak Apparatus Division. He was hired by Dr. Feldman, who, along with his wife Marilyn, remained good friends with my parents for the rest of their lives. My dad passed away on February 21st of this year in Florida at the age of 95.

POSTSCRIPT: On August 18, 1985 my dad (and I would guess some other Kodak employees) were recognized by the Director of National Intelligence at CIA headquarters for their early contributions to satellite reconnaissance technology. The event was entitled “25th Anniversary Commemoration of Pioneers in Space Technology.” Details of the event are still classified. I believe that there were about 75 to 100 people recognized as space pioneers.¹

medal that was presented to my dad at the Commemoration:

Medal presented to Dr. H. Frank Hicks, Jr.,at the Commemoration. [Provided by Scott D. Hicks]

¹ Scott also adds to the presidential visits series with another George H.W. Bush sighting. When Bush was the Director of Central Intelligence from January 30, 1976, to January 20, 1977, Frank Hicks, Jr  met Mr. Bush at the Rochester airport and drove him to Kodak for one or more meetings to discuss the Gambit program.

SEE ALSO

The Presidential Visits Series in its entirety: James Monroe to Donald Trump

October 23rd and 24th, 1952 when Ike and Adlai were in town back to back. And School 29.