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Locals Remember Kennedy's Visits To West Virginia

Reported by: Send eMail Katy Brown
Web Producer: Heath Harrison
Also Contributing: Heath Harrison
Reported: Nov. 22, 2013 10:08 PM EST
Updated: Nov. 23, 2013 2:46 AM EST


Locals Remember Kennedy
Eyewitness News Photo

Raw News Video Available

Charleston, Huntington , West Virginia

It was a Friday afternoon in 1963 that stopped the collective heartbeat of America.

President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was gunned down at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time on Nov. 22, 1963 as he rode through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, Texas.

Within the hour, at just 46 years old, the leader of the free world was pronounced dead, his future wiped out, and the future of America thrown into doubt.

Lee Harvey Oswald was soon apprehended a few miles away, inside the Texas Theater, after witnesses said they saw him shoot and kill a police officer nearby.

It wasn't long before detectives connected the two shootings, but Oswald never went to trial for either murder.

Two days after Kennedy's assassination, while being transported, Oswald was shot dead on live TV by nightclub owner Jack Ruby in the basement of a Dallas police station. Oswald's death also killed the best chance America had to know why their president was shot down in cold blood.

Kennedy paid many visits to West Virginia, both before and after he was elected president. Now, 50 years later, many locals still have vivid memories of those trips.

One man’s father had an opportunity to ask Kennedy a question during his 1960 campaign.

For Tony Shepherd, the name Kennedy brings up many memories - first, his father asking one of the most important questions during the presidential primary campaign here in West Virginia, and then this date 50 years ago, when he said D.C. stood still.

On April 11, 1960, students and townspeople gathered at Morris Harvey College, now the University of Charleston, to hear then-U.S. Sen. Kennedy speak for his campaign.

Tony Shephard's father, Walton Shepherd, was there and asked Kennedy one question.

"Whether a Catholic president could carry a conservative Protestant state like West Virginia, knowing the attitude of the country of the time, it was very important," Tony Shepherd said.

Kennedy answered, "If I felt there was an inhibition for my ability to fill my oath of office, which I've taken five times - I've been elected to Congress, which I took when I went into the service, then, of course, I would not not have come to West Virginia."

Kennedy won over Walton Shepherd and West Virginians and, months later, was elected as president.

It was three years later, on Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

At the time, Tony Sheperd was 13 and at a boarding school in Washington, D.C.

"We just gathered around the radio, and listened and a few minutes later,” he said. “Of course, they said he died."

The days following Kennedy's assassination, Shepherd said D.C. was quiet and still.

Students like himself were not in desks or classrooms, but lined Pennsylvania Avenue for the funeral procession, a day Shepherd said he will never forget.

"There's still a fascination with President Kennedy and his legacy,” he said. “It's an important part of our history, no doubt about it."


Kennedy always had a special connection to the Mountain State.

West Virginia helped him secure the Democratic nomination for president. He returned to the state three years after the campaign to help celebrate West Virginia's 100th anniversary of statehood.

“1863 was marked by three extraordinary events - the birth of this state, the Emancipation Proclamation and the battle of Gettysburg,” Kennedy said on the steps of the state Capitol, on a rainy June 20, 1963. “This state was born in turmoil."

Kennedy told the crowd, “The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do."

Former Huntington Mayor Bobby Nelson worked as a security guard at Kennedy's 1961 inauguration. He remembers Kennedy campaigning in West Virginia, and said seeing the poverty in the Mountain State had a major effect on Kennedy's domestic platform.

“That made a real impact to him, in terms of the government need to be more responsive to the people,” Nelson said. “And so a lot of the things he did, in terms social programs, I think were really started by what he witnessed in West Virginia."

For more of Nelson’s interview and memories of Kennedy, visit the ”Raw News” section of our website.

Related link: See Kennedy's 1960 WV primary debate at the WCHS studio here.

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