By Ellen Bell
On June 20, 1964, a crowd of 15,000 people followed newly paved, two-lane roads to a wide-open, shadeless site on former pastureland. Invited guests and dignitaries filled the reserved seating area near the temporary stage. When the rest of the chairs were filled, the overflow crowd found spots on which to sit on the barren hillside. The foundations of two buildings still under construction acted as the backdrop.
They had come out on that Saturday to witness a historic moment in local history. UC Irvine, just beginning to rise out of the cattle-grazing hills of the Irvine Ranch, was about to be dedicated. The first day of class was still 15 months away, but hopes were high for the newest UC campus. The gathered attendees were understandably excited for the ceremony to begin. The president of the United States would soon be there.
Presidential candidates had visited four previous times on campaign swings through Southern California. But the UC Irvine dedication visit by Lyndon B. Johnson was the first time a U.S. president had visited Orange County.
“Orange County wasn’t much of a place for Democrats back then,” said Jean Aldrich, wife of UCI’s first chancellor, Daniel Aldrich Jr. “I was surprised to see so many out there on that open field sitting in the blazing sun.”
“They were an enthusiastic crowd, whether they voted for him or not,” Mrs. Aldrich remembers. “He was the president.”
The dedication ceremony was scheduled to work around the president’s speaking tour in California. In the wake of the Kennedy assassination seven months earlier, extra security was provided by the Marine Corps. It was decided that President Johnson would arrive at the site via helicopter.