EDITOR’S NOTE — As the nation pauses to honor the legacy of President George H.W. Bush, Nebraska Today is looking back at the 41st president’s time in office and his impact on the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. In this story, we examine campus remembrances of Bush’s June 13, 1989 visit to discuss alternative energy. See complete coverage of Nebraska Today’s Remembering 41 series.
Nearly 30 years ago, on a warm June afternoon, the presidential spotlight shined on ethanol research at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Seeking to lower the nation’s reliance on foreign oil, President George H.W. Bush came calling to tour Nebraska research facilities and deliver a speech about the future of alternative fuels. The June 13, 1989 speech, which drew nearly 11,000 to the Devaney Sports Center, included praise for Nebraska research and the use of ethanol.
“Nebraska’s going to make it work,” Bush said. “These alternative fuels are going to take the market by storm.”
That enthusiasm was built on a day that included a tour of the university’s Center for Engine Technology and Bush taking an ethanol-fueled Chevrolet Corsica on a spin with then-Gov. Kay Orr around the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory’s test track.
“We’ve had a number of dignitaries visit campus, but that was one of the more productive and positive visits I was ever involved with,” said Martin Massengale, emeritus chancellor. “I remember talking in small groups with President Bush about ethanol and the importance of agriculture in Nebraska.
“He was very personable and seemed to listen well. He was really interested in what we had to say.”
When the Bush visit was announced, Massengale was scheduled to attend an important morning meeting in Omaha. Time between the end of the meeting and start of the president’s campus visit was too narrow for the 60-mile drive back to campus, so Massengale winged it.
“There was no way I could drive back, so Robert Duncan (chairman emeritus of Duncan Aviation) brought me back to Lincoln in a helicopter,” Massengale said. “That was certainly an unusual way for me to get back to campus — and it happens to be the last time I flew in a helicopter. But, I felt President Bush’s visit was that important.”
Prior to traveling to the Devaney Sports Center, Bush held a media availability at the Nebraska Center for Continuing Education (often called the Kellogg Center) — which is now Hardin Hall. Working as a videographer at KOLN, Lincoln’s CBS affiliate, Dave Fitzgibbon helped broadcast an interview with the president.
“He did brief one-on-one interviews with each of the several television stations that were there,” said Fitzgibbon, director of video services with University Communication. “Many of us covered those interviews live.”
After the interviews, the president came over, thanked the reporting teams, shook hands, answered questions and posed for individual photos. A few weeks later — in a time before selfies and social media posts — the photo arrived via U.S. mail.
“There I was, tired and sweaty from pulling cables on a hot day, dressed like a snow cone salesman, and standing next to the President of the United States with a goofy look on my face,” Fitzgibbon said. “Luckily, we both seem to share goofy facial expressions.”
That photo and a few moments with the president remain a moment of pride.
“It was a long time ago — 29 years ago — but I’ll always remember him as being jovial and kind-hearted, spending some of his very valuable time to sit and talk with people who work behind the scenes,” Fitzgibbon said. “He was a total statesman and dedicated to country.”
In the days leading up to Bush’s campus visit, Bill Manning, then a sergeant with the University Police Department, worked behind scenes helping support the Secret Service in securing the Devaney Center.
“I remember them searching every nook and cranny of the sports center with dogs and blocking off the doors in the days before the visit,” said Manning, operations manager with Parking and Transit Services. “I missed the speech, but I was involved behind scenes. That’s something that not everyone can brag about.”
His other memories include federal officials monitoring Devaney phone lines in the days ahead of the speech; setting up metal detectors; long lines of individuals passing through security screenings to attend the talk; listening to radio calls and directing officers as needed during the speech; a small throng of protestors outside the venue; and talking with a Secret Service officer about Nebraska.
“To the Secret Service guy in the command post with me, Nebraska was just some flyover state,” Manning said. “He had never spent time here, so that’s what we talked about.”
In the June 16, 1989, edition of the Bulletin Board — an internal communication publication for faculty and staff — Massengale thanked the university community for a job well done in hosting President Bush. Nearly 30 years later, the day remains one of Massengale’s favorite memories as a campus leader.
“The Devaney Center was packed and filled with so much enthusiasm and energy,” Massengale said. “I feel that President Bush has remained one of the more popular presidents among recent administrations. His legacy has left a tremendous and positive impression on Nebraska and the nation.”