In the end, after all the months of planning, 43 cousins from 15 states gathered in Abilene, Kan., two-and-a-half hours west of Kansas City on Interstate 70.
Some of us knew each other; many of us didn’t. We chose Abilene, population 6,800, for our “cousin convention” because our great-grandparents, Phillip Oliver Lucier and Mary Villeneuve Lucier, raised their 12 children there. These 12 are our grandparents. (Except for two first cousins, we are all second cousins.)
It was in 1886 that 20-year-old Phillip married 17-year-old Mary. She would see only some of her 12 children reach adulthood.
Mary died age 40, a week after the last child was born.
We are told that she succumbed to scarlet fever, probably transmitted by the doctor who attended her delivery.
During our four days in Abilene, we found Phillip and Mary and several other Luciers in the treeless Catholic cemetery at the north end of town. More relatives reside in “the other cemetery” (read Protestant), lush with expansive shade trees, at the south end of town.
The Lucier Family history is woven inextricably with that of Abilene’s, which has made its mark because of two things: the famed cattle drives of the mid-1800s — the town was at the end of the Chisholm Trail — and its hometown hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allied Commander during World War II and 34th president of the United States.
At Abilene’s Heritage Center, we learned that life in central Kansas in the mid-to-late 1800s was only for the strong.
The extreme weather, tornados, locusts and loneliness defeated some.
One Lucier family story that has endured is that our grandparents were relegated on weekends to sleeping on the floor of their home.
This was necessary to avoid stray bullets that flew in abundance, thanks to cowboys who were flush with liquor and cash after many weeks on the trail driving cattle.
The Lucier family also has a clear connection with Eisenhower.
My grandfather, Ralph Lucier and his brothers, Charles and Sid, were classmates and football teammates with Ike at Abilene High School.
And my grandmother, red-headed Ruby Norman (also of Abilene and eventually Ralph’s wife), had what one biographer describes as a relationship with Ike that was “close without commitment.”
We gained insight into this relationship at the Eisenhower Library. Tim Rives, deputy director, was kind enough to make six copies of the entire set of letters from Ike to Ruby that were never meant for public consumption. There also are many years of Christmas cards from Ike and Mamie.
Many of the letters were written during Ike’s West Point years (1911 to 1915).
They followed Ruby as she traveled around the country with the Chautauqua Circuit, a theater troupe that brought culture to small towns that were otherwise lacking. My grandmother played the violin in a “girl band,” and traveled via train with actors and performers of the opposite sex — somewhat risqué for the times.
Ike wrote more than once that he’d much rather be acting or traveling with the troupe than be confined to the West Point campus.
I’m so grateful that my mother and aunt for donating the letters to the library. They are the reason cousins from our grandmother’s side of the family reconnected with us, attended the reunion and provided us with extensive information about my grandmother’s lineage.
Ike and Ruby’s friendship endured for a lifetime. His last letter arrived the day after she died in 1967. (Ike died in 1969.)
Ruby had lived a full life that included a happy marriage, two children, 20 grandchildren and a continued love affair with the violin. She requested that her letters not be made public until five years after hers and Ike’s death.
The Eisenhower complex also includes his boyhood home, a meticulously maintained clapboard farmhouse that still holds many of the family’s possessions.
Later that day, my sister and I had lunch in town at Amanda’s Bistro and began conversing with a chatty white-haired lady who said she had known Ida, mother of the seven Eisenhower boys (one died as a child).
“We used to visit her on the way to and from school,” she explained. “We’d cut across her property and she’d invite us up onto the porch for milk and cookies. We’d talk and talk. She was the nicest lady.”
Ida also may have simply been thrilled have the company of girls.
Check it out: abilenecityhall.com/index.aspx?nid=160, or call (785) 263-2550.
To come: What to see and do in Abilene even if you aren’t attending a family reunion.
E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at [email protected]