from Eyewitness News Online
June 20, 1963 - President John F. Kennedy's Final Visit To WV
By Heath Harrison
November 24, 2013
This past week, America marked 50 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This installment of “Remember When” is the second of a two-part series looking back at the president and his ties to West Virginia. Part one can be found here.
“I would not be where I now am, I would not have some of the responsibilities which I now bear, if it had not been for the people of West Virginia.”
-- President John F. Kennedy
On a rainy June 20, 1963, President John F. Kennedy returned to West Virginia to help the state celebrate its 100th anniversary of statehood.
Speaking on the Capitol steps to a crowd gathered in the gloomy weather, Kennedy told them, ‘‘the sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do.’’
Lynn Anderson, of Charleston, was nine years old when she attended the Capitol event and said she will never forget seeing the young president in person.
“As we walked back toward downtown, at the corner of Virginia and Elizabeth streets, the presidential motorcade was passing by,” Anderson said. “President Kennedy was no more than an arm’s length away - with the window down! I was thrilled!”
The visit would be Kennedy’s last trip to the state, which he always felt played a key role in helping him become president.
Kennedy’s victory in the West Virginia primary three years earlier had been the turning point that helped secure him the Democratic nomination for president and eliminated hurdles he had faced from those who felt he could not be elected because of his Catholic faith.
The U.S. senator from Massachusetts opened his campaign with a March 16, 1960 press conference at Charleston’s Daniel Boone Hotel, getting a three-week head start on his rival for the nomination, Minnesota’s U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey.
The ground effort of Kennedy’s campaign officially launched on April 6, when the senator’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy and Edward Kennedy, flew to Charleston, where they met with dozens of campaign workers.
Over the next few weeks, Kennedy’s team engaged in aggressive retail campaigning, going door-to-door, distributing leaflets and hosting events statewide.
His campaign took him to Charleston, Huntington, Parkersburg, Rainelle, Welch, Weirton, Cabin Creek, Madison, South Charleston, Dunbar, St. Albans, Bluefield, Athens, Beckley, Oak Hill, Spencer, Elkview, Cotton, Martinsburg, Walton, Charles Town Clendenin, and many more stops around the state.
The candidate met crowds at a wide variety of locations, whether it was students at colleges like Concord or Marshall, customers at downtown stores and restaurants like Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti and House in Huntington, or workers at places such as the Maidenform bra factory in Princeton or International Nickel Co.’s Huntington plant.
Former Huntington Mayor Bobby Nelson, who was a student at Marshall at the time, recalled the candidate’s stop at the college. At the time, political candidates were not allowed to come on to the college’s campus.
“We arranged for students to come out on the sidewalk in front of the James Morrow Library,” Nelson said. “He pulled up in his convertible and stood up on his car and addressed the students. I helped organize that, and we had a big turnout.”
U.S. Rep. Ken Hechler was campaigning for re-election and appeared with Kennedy.
“He asked me, ‘What should I tell the students?’” Hechler said. “I said, ‘Tell them Marshall will soon be a university,’ and it resonated with the students.”
The legislation had already been passed for Marshall to become a university the following year, but the crowd went wild anyway, Nelson said.
Hechler said Kennedy had an ability to connect with people, especially the young.
“He sensed their hopes and dreams,” he said.
Nelson said Kennedy’s appearance on the street drew more than students.
“During his talk to the students, the steel mill across the street had a shift change,” Nelson said. “A lot of the workers there saw Kennedy, so they came across Third Avenue. We basically had Third Avenue blocked for about 15 minutes with shift workers and students.”
Kennedy’s team brought a level of face to face campaigning to the state that had not seen before.
When the candidate wasn’t available, the campaign sent the members of the Kennedy family, including his many siblings and in-laws. Kennedy also had a boost from Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr., the son of the four-term Democratic president, who remained massively popular in the state.
The campaign’s starpower and organizational superiority, combined with the financial advantage of the Kennedy family (the debate over whether his father Joe Kennedy bought the state continues to this day), overwhelmed Humphrey, and Kennedy took the state in a landslide primary victory.
In the nation’s general election that fall, one of the closest in history, West Virginia was among the states in Kennedy’s column, voting for Kennedy over Vice President Richard Nixon, 53 to 47 percent.
“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”
Nelson was living in Washington, D.C. when Kennedy took the oath of office, working as a security guard at the U.S. Capitol, when Kennedy delivered the iconic speech.
“That day, I was assigned the east front of the capitol," he said. "All the dignitaries came in, and I remember Robert Frost and people like that, who I would help across the street.”
Nelson remembers overhearing Robert Kennedy at the event.
“It was extremely cold that day, and I recall Robert saying, ‘Jack does not want to wear his top hat. He hates to wear hats.’ But he had to wear this big top hat.”
A friend to West Virginia
Kennedy’s attention to West Virginia did not fade with the election.
“He was always grateful to West Virginia for having chosen him over Humphrey in that famous campaign,” Hechler said.
Having been shocked firsthand by the level of poverty in Appalachia, Kennedy committed to increasing social programs and aid to the poor, Nelson said.
“He had only scheduled his campaign to come through for maybe a few appearances,” Nelson said. “But it ended up that he spent almost 18 days. And that's when he really fell in love with state, but he also saw the poverty and the isolation.”
Nelson said West Virginia a great role in shaping Kennedy’s domestic agenda.
“That made a real impact to him, in terms of the government need to be more responsive to the people,” he 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."
In his first act as president, Kennedy doubled the amount of funds going to West Virginia for food stamps and raised the amount of federal aid to the state. Kennedy also increased the amount of dollars going to parks and infrastructure in the state.
When the Interstate Highway System was created under his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower, there were no plans for a north-south highway for the state. Kennedy ordered the creation of a federal highway for West Virginia.
“There was a small reserve of Interstate highway mileage that hadn't been allocated,” Nelson said. “He allocated that to West Virginia and that's how we got I-79.”
Under Kennedy, the amount of defense contracts going to West Virginia increased, raising the state’s rank from 50th to 25th, a fact the president pointed out in his speech at the state’s centennial.
Nov. 22, 1963
Five months after Kennedy’s final visit to West Virginia, the state, along with the nation was shocked to hear of his assassination in Dallas.
With the station being a CBS affiliate at the time, viewers tuned into WCHS in Charleston would have seen the soap opera “As the World Turns” famously interrupted at 1:40 p.m. EST by a special bulletin from anchor Walter Cronkite, announcing shots were fired at the president’s motorcade in Dealey Plaza. Forty minutes later, they would learn from Cronkite that the president was pronounced dead.
Anderson, like many, was at school when she heard the news.
“When my third grade class at Mercer Elementary on Quarrier Street was told that President Kennedy had been shot and was dead, I was devastated,” she said. “I remember distraught parents waiting outside for their children when school was dismissed.”
Nelson was in Washington when he heard the news.
“It didn't say at first that he was killed,” Nelson said. “They said there had been shots fired and he was being taken to the hospital. I knew when they said they were bringing him back from Dallas to Washington, that it would be Walter Reed Hospital.”
Nelson said he got in his car and drove to Walter Reed, where he saw a military escort come in preparing for the president’s arrival.
Kennedy had been pronounced dead in Dallas, and his body was flown back to Washington for a state funeral.
Nelson said the news was difficult for many to process at first.
“It was just such a shock for the country,” he said. “I think it took 24 hours for it to really soak in."
Nelson, along with his three-year-old son, went to pay their respects to Kennedy, while his body was lying in state at the U.S. Capitol. They were among a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands who filed past Kennedy’s casket.
“It wasn't just a solemn procession,” he said. "People were crying. It was just such a shock. It was almost unbelievable.”
This week’s video, courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives at the Culture Center, contains a 1983 piece on Kennedy in West Virginia by reporter Brian Clark, prepared for the 20th anniversary of Kennedy’s death. The compilation features scenes from the 1960 campaign and ends with Kennedy speaking at the West Virginia 100th celebration at the Capitol in 1963.
Following Clark’s report, we see a piece by reporter Ed Rabel (who would go on to serve as WCHS news director, before becoming a Polk Award-winning international reporter for CBS). Filmed in the aftermath of the assassination, it features Rabel reporting from the empty capitol, where the flags are seen at half-staff for Kennedy.
– Video of Bobby Nelson’s interview can be found here.
- Reporter Dan Matics visits Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti House on the anniversary of Kennedy’s death. See his report here.
- See Eyewitness News’ coverage of the anniversary here.
- What are your memories of Kennedy? Stop by our Facebook page and join in on the conversation.
Special thanks to all who shared their memories for this piece
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