Forrest Preece Is An Austin Icon. He writes a column for a small West Austin newspaper and is a dear friend of my wife and I. At a steakhouse, he met an old friend who passed along this story about a rather tense encounter with the lauded commander.
by Forrest Preece
Linda and I have spent many a pleasurable evening in the comfy, plush lounge of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse downtown. The cushiony chairs and fine food and libations seem to invite people to relax and talk.
Indeed, many times, Greg Davey has joined his fellow restaurant owners Bill Andrews and Gary Porfirio with us in discussing the problems of the world. (I don’t think we have quite solved them yet.) But the other day, Greg told us a story that I thought many West Austinites would find intriguing.
In March 1969, Greg was a First Lieutenant serving at Fort Riley, Kansas, running the officer’s club. A recent Oklahoma State ROTC graduate, he was getting his feet wet in the food service business—in a hurry.
One day, just after he had pulled guard duty, he got a call that put him face to face with history. It was around 8:30 in the morning and he had just gone by the club to make sure everything was all right.
The call came from a colonel in Abilene, Kansas, the hometown of President and Five Star General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The colonel said, “Lieutenant, how soon can you get to Abilene?”
Greg answered that it would take about 45 minutes, but he was in his fatigues. The colonel replied that he didn’t care if Greg was in his pajamas, he should command a vehicle and get on down there now without changing.
When Greg arrived, the colonel told him to get in his personal jeep. He then drove him to a large, empty building. Then he revealed that former President Eisenhower had died and that this structure– the only empty building in the area—was going to be used as the center for the food and drink activities surrounding the services.
It was going to be up to Greg to get ready — in three days—to serve the most important people in the world for both a cocktail party the night before and a luncheon after the funeral.
Greg couldn’t help but show a little dismay. The colonel said, “Son, you have ‘Priority One’—that means anything you need from the Army, you get it—asap. And my personal aide, Captain ____ is going to be your right hand through it all.”
Then the colonel drove off. Greg took a deep breath and told the captain (which was pretty strange, considering their ranks) that he needed an 18-wheel freezer truck and an 18-wheel refrigerator truck and they should be backed up to the building.
He required carpenters to make the bathroom ready with couches for the female dignitaries, especially Mrs. Eisenhower, and barbers and tailors to serve the troops.
Then he asked for a helicopter to fly in gold-rimmed china from Fort Leavenworth—the closest base where fine place settings could be found.
One snag came when he tried to get his banquet manager down there to oversee the food preparation. She was a German national and the FBI was giving him grief about it.
Greg finally got them to agree to let her come if she could be shadowed by an FBI agent at all times.
Just to add to everything else he had to worry about, at one point, the FBI made him crawl up on the roof and look down all the stack pipes to make sure there weren’t bombs in any of them.
The cocktail party went off without a hitch. Then the post-funeral lunch started.
“The first people who came through the door were Fred Waring, Mrs. Eisenhower, and President Richard Nixon and the First Lady,” Greg says.
By this time, Greg had managed to retrieve his dress blues and get into them. Now he was standing at parade rest, overseeing the situation.
Then a tall officer came up behind him and started chit-chatting. Finally Greg turned around to try and figure out who this man was. He saw an unusual circular insignia on his shoulder and suddenly, he got a chill of recognition. Yes, it was the only remaining five-star general on the face of the planet — Omar Bradley.
“Lieutenant, would you like a cup of coffee?”
Greg said, “Sir, I think I had better pay attention to what’s going on.”
General Bradley said, “Lieutenant, as long as you are with me, no one will mess with you. How do you like your coffee?”
Greg said, “Black will be fine, sir.” General Bradley went over and got it for him, including two refills.
There followed a conversation in which Greg asked General Bradley what it was like to fight Rommel, among other things.
“He was just as pleasant as could be. I saw why he was known as the troops’ general, that’s for sure.”
Bottom line, Greg got an Army Commendation for his work. And though his commanding officer back at Fort Riley questioned some of his expenditures, it was all smiles after that.
What a story – and it’s no wonder Greg is always so calm. Nothing he’s run across in the civilian restaurant business could begin to match the pressure he was under back then.
Sources and Citations: West Austin News, Greg Davey.