ELLENVILLE – It isn't every day that the President of the United States comes to visit our region. In fact, it's only happened once, and that was on August 19, 1966. The President at the time was Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the occasion that brought a presidential motorcade from Stewart Air Force base, across Walden and Pine Bush, up Walker Valley and down to Ellenville, was the dedication of the Ellenville Hospital.
In those days, Ellenville was a thriving town, with the Channel Master factory churning out antennas for the TV viewers of America, and several other factories also humming. The Resnick family who owned Channel Master had risen to national prominence, with Harry and Lou Resnick working in the business while Joseph Resnick served in the US Congress from 1964 to 1969.
Joe Resnick had scheduled a flag raising ceremony at the hospital for July 22, when he could be on hand. The dedication itself was set for August 5. At the flag raising, however, Resnick dropped a bomb.
"I just received word this morning, about your dedication," he said. "It could be a very big thing."
"The Vice-President?" said someone.
"Could you hold off on your plans for a few days?" added the Congressman.
Ellenville resident, Norman Tennenbaum got a call from Harry Resnick asking him what kind of range he had on the radio transmitter/receiver unit he had in his car. Later, when Tennenbaum met Resnick that afternoon, he learned that the White House security people had already been to the area and scoped it out. The local hotels had been visited, and the hoteliers sworn to secrecy. And Ben Slutsky's Tower Suite apartment at the Nevele had been inspected for the President's possible use.
Soon the Nevele was engaged in the difficult job of calling hundreds of guests with reservations to inform them that they either had to leave early, or come late. Meanwhile, security — still jittery after Kennedy's assassination less than three years earlier — started moving through the area, checking the roads in small towns like Pine Bush and Walker Valley.
People hadn't heard anything definitive... and yet the telephone company was putting in extra lines at the Nevele and the hospital. Then the Congressman held a press conference: he announced that President Johnson "might be" coming to the area at approximately 6 p.m. on Friday, August 19.
The Festival Room at the Nevele was converted into a press room, where several dozen new IBM typewriters were installed. Tall, dark suited Secret Service agents started combing the hotel and its grounds. The switchboard at the resort lit up as people tried to book a room for the upcoming presidential weekend.
Hospital president Ben Lonstein called a special meeting of his board of directors. Lou Resnick, reporting from the Dedication Committee, announced, "I think that we just might have the only hospital in the State of New York dedicated by a President of the United States."
A meeting of key Channel Master employees was held.
"This visit by the President takes precedence over Channel Master business," said Harry Resnick, in reports from the time. "It's the most important thing that's ever happened to Ellenville and to this whole area."
By Wednesday afternoon, August 17, there were fifty phone guys busy putting in 24,000 feet of cable and 80 phones for the presidential party. The POTUS Switchboard was installed in the blue room at the Nevele and continuously manned by Signal Corps staff. Newspaper reporters converged on the town, seeking personal interest stories... the biggest of which involved Meyer Sugarman's imperiled honeymoon with his third wife... and how he'd wired the White House to protest his postponement only to have LBJ himself intervene and personally reinstate the Sugarmans' reservation, which the Nevele confirmed.
On the big day, President Johnson and wife Lady Bird flew from Buffalo to Syracuse, at which point busses of journalists descended on Stewart Air Force base, simultaneous with Harry Resnick, a State Police official and a White House aide driving the entire route to Stewart and back, checking that there were no last minute problems.
Air Force One landed at 6:30 p.m. and the President, Lady Bird, Senators Robert Kennedy and Jacob Javits, and Congressman Resnick boarded a fleet of Lincoln Continental limousines and sped through the region as enormous crowds gathered to wave at the President, even though he was a Democrat in Republican territory.
A thousand people assembled in the parking lot of the Valley Supreme in Pine Bush, where LBJ ordered the car to halt so he could get out and meet and greet the citizens. He introduced Congressman Resnick as "the man who is going to put me up for the night." A Senior Citizens group, led by James Bonney, carried banners saying, "Thanks for Medicare."
The motorcade moved on to Walker Valley, where about 500 people gathered to see the already-late motorcade speed on over the Shawangunk ridge, with a helicopter above so that radio communication could be maintained at all times between the President and the White House.
Scott Carlsen, today the Supervisor of the Town of Wawarsing, was eleven back then.
"We knew the president was coming to town. We'd seen them string a special phone line for the occasion and everyone said that was so they could control the missiles," he recalled. "My family lived in the house next to Louck's Funeral Home and we all sat out on the porch... The motorcade went by really fast on the way to the hospital but on the way back it was slower, and there were lights on in the limo and I clearly saw LBJ."
Lorraine DeVore, who grew up on the Shawangunk ridge and lives in Wawarsing, still, was a nurse at the Ellenville Hospital Emergency Room in the hospital on that day.
"It's funny, but what impressed me so much that day was having all these big men, in their suits, standing on the roof of the hospital with rifles," she recalled. "We were all prepared, all geared up for it. We had made preparations so that if there was an emergency we could get an ambulance in there, even during the dedication ceremony."
A massive crowd, estimated at ten thousand, greeted the President and his entourage with cheers and applause and listened to the speeches as the Ellenville Hospital was dedicated. At first, people remember, it was hard to hear anything because the communications chopper was whirling around the scene overhead. The President noticed and turned back to speak to Bill Moyers, one of his closest aides. And a few moments later, the helicopter moved away from the scene so everyone could hear clearly.
Following the speeches and the dedication, the President toured the hospital, stopping in with the First Lady to say hello to all the patients, who had left their doors open in anticipation. They made a special visit with Heather Coll, a five year old girl with a blood disorder that had been discovered when she entered Head Start, a program that LBJ was especially proud of.
Later, as dark started to descend, the President consented to get back in the limo and ride to the Nevele. Dinner offered everything from "Mother's Style Gefilte Fish" to Roast Prime Ribs of Beef, Bavarian Meatballs, Roast Plymouth Rock Pullet, plus Chocolate Seven Layer Cake and Apple Strudel.
When the President finally withdrew to sleep, the Slutskys, who had been working tirelessly all day, continued to operate, meeting with newsmen and Presidential aides. At dawn Marion Slutsky turned to Ben and said "When are we sleeping?"
"Who can sleep?" Ben is said to have replied.
At 8:30 a.m. the next morning, two huge helicopters settled onto the lawn at the Nevele. The President and First Lady presented White House pens to the hotel staff, and after some more autograph signings and baby swinging, made their way to the choppers while a wall of secret service men and state troopers held back the crowds while linked, arm in arm.