US Elections Special: The past US presidents in their youth (Part 2) from Jimmy Carter’s friendship with a black boy to Gerald Ford as a young football star

Here’s part 2 of our US election special delving into the young lives of the past US presidents from the amazing talent of Dwight Eisenhower in playing cards to the football player days of Gerald Ford to the moment where Ronald Reagan saved 77 people from drowning.

Dwight Eisenhower


Born on October 14, 1890, in a house by the railroad tracks in Denison, Texas, Dwight David Eisenhower spent his youth in the small farm town of Abilene, Kansas. His father, David, worked as a mechanic in a local creamery. His mother, Ida, a Mennonite, was a religious pacifist who opposed war. Eisenhower did family chores, delighted in hunting and fishing and football, and eagerly read military history. In 1911, he won an appointment to West Point, where he played football until he suffered a serious knee injury. His pranks, fondness for cards and smoking, and average grades earned him little respect from his teachers. They thought that he would be a good officer, but not a great one.

After graduating in the middle of his class—61st out of 164—Eisenhower spent the next few years at one disappointing station after another, beginning with a stint as a second lieutenant at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. It was there that he met and married Mamie Doud. At Camp Meade, Maryland, Eisenhower became friends with George S. Patton, Jr. Both Eisenhower and Patton published articles in 1920 advocating that the Army make better use of tanks to prevent a repetition of the static and destructive trench warfare of World War I. But Army authorities considered Eisenhower insubordinate rather than visionary and threatened him with a court-martial if he again challenged official views on infantry warfare. *1

John F. Kennedy

Photo from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

John F. Kennedy and the other Kennedy children played hard, and they enjoyed competing with one another. Joseph Sr. encouraged this competition, especially among the boys. He was a father with very high expectations and wanted the boys to win at sports and everything they tried. As he often said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” But sometimes these competitions went too far. One time when Joe suggested that he and Jack race on their bicycles, they collided head-on. Joe emerged unscathed while Jack had to have twenty-eight stitches. Because Joe was two years older and stronger than Jack, whenever they fought, Jack would usually get the worst of it. Jack was the only sibling who posed any real threat to Joe’s dominant position as the oldest child.

Jack was very popular and had many friends at Choate, a boarding school for adolescent boys in Connecticut. He played tennis, basketball, football, and golf and also enjoyed reading. His friend Lem Billings remembers how unusual it was that Jack had a daily subscription to the New York Times. Jack had a “clever, individualist mind,” his Head Master once noted, though he was not the best student. He did not always work as hard as he could, except in history and English, which were his favorite subjects. “Now Jack,” his father wrote in a letter one day, “I don’t want to give the impression that I am a nagger, for goodness knows I think that is the worse thing any parent can be, and I also feel that you know if I didn’t really feel you had the goods I would be most charitable in my attitude toward your failings. After long experience in sizing up people I definitely know you have the goods and you can go a long way…It is very difficult to make up fundamentals that you have neglected when you were very young, and that is why I am urging you to do the best you can. I am not expecting too much, and I will not be disappointed if you don’t turn out to be a real genius, but I think you can be a really worthwhile citizen with good judgment and understanding.” *2

Gerald Ford


Born in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 14, 1913, Ford grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ford`s parents separated two weeks after his birth (addendum: his mother fled from his abusive father), then his mother took him to Grand Rapids to live with her parents. Two years after his parents finalized their divorce, his mother remarried. Ford has three brothers.

Early in his youth, Ford showed talent for playing football that supported him through his college years. He also was active in the Boy Scouts of America, achieving Eagle Scout in November 1927. He earned spending money by working in the family paint business and at a local restaurant (addendum: where he once met his father, which was a shocked to him knowing all along that his stepfather is his biological father).

Ford played on the University`s national championship football teams in 1932 and 1933. He was voted the Wolverines` MVP (most valuable player) in 1934 and in January 1935, played in the annual East-West College All-Star game in San Francisco, California. In August 1935, he played in the Chicago Tribune College All-Star football game at Soldier Field against the Chicago Bears.

After graduating from the University of Michigan, at Ann Arbor with a B.A. degree in 1935, he rejected offers to play professional football with the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers. Instead, he headed for Yale University. There, Ford coached football and earned his law degree in 1941. *3

Jimmy Carter

Photo from Michigan University

Jimmy Carter was a studious boy who avoided trouble and began working at his father’s store at the age of ten. His favorite childhood pastime was sitting with his father in the evenings, listening to baseball games and politics on the battery-operated radio.

Both of Carter’s parents were deeply religious. They belonged to Plains Baptist Church and insisted that Carter attend Sunday school, which his father occasionally taught. Carter attended the all-white Plains High School while the area’s majority black population received educations at home or at church. Despite this pervasive segregation, two of Carter’s closest childhood friends were African American, as were two of the most influential adults in his life, his nanny Annie Mae Hollis and his father’s worker Jack Clark. While the Great Depression hit most of the rural south very hard, the Carters managed to prosper during these years, and by the late 1930s his father had over 200 workers employed on his farms. In 1941, Jimmy Carter became the first person from his father’s side of the family to graduate from high school. *4

Ronald Reagan

Photo from University of Texas at Austin

As a boy, Reagan’s life was filled with scrapes and adventures. He once narrowly escaped death while playing under a train that suddenly began moving. Reagan graduated from Dixon High School in 1928, where he played on the football and basketball teams, became president of the student body, acted in school plays, and wrote for the yearbook. Reagan, an accomplished swimmer since early boyhood, worked six summers as a lifeguard in Lowell Park in Dixon on the treacherous Rock River. According to newspaper reports of the time and later research, he saved 77 people from drowning.

Reagan enrolled in 1928 at Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois. He majored in economics but was an indifferent student, graduating with a “C” average in 1932. At Eureka, he played football and was a member of the college swim team, performed with the drama club, joined the debate club, worked as a reporter on the school newspaper, edited the college yearbook, and served as president of the student council. Admitted to college on a partial football scholarship, Reagan washed dishes at his fraternity house, Tau Kappa Epsilon, and at a girl’s dormitory, and worked as a lifeguard and a swimming coach to pay the rest of his college costs and sent money home to his economically hard-hit family. He also had an early taste of politics: while still a freshman he made a dramatic oration on behalf of Eureka students who were striking to restore classes that the school administration had eliminated because of financial strains caused by the Great Depression. After the strike, the college president resigned. *5

Author’s Note: The photos and inspiration for this article came from “The Presidents of the United States: When They Were Young and Hunky” (yes that’s the entire title). You can click the URL here: ( Photos are from the site too but we attributed some of the original source to be safe.

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