a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The day President Kennedy waived to us

President John F. Kennedy is shown in 1962 speaking outside the Washington County Courthouse in Washington, Pa., ending a mid-term election sweep through Pennsylvania's steel country. Observer-Reporter

By Scott Beveridge

There isn't much I remember about the autumn morning in 1962 when the president of the United States paraded through my scrappy hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania.

It's because that October 13 when John F. Kennedy swept through Webster, Pa., fell six weeks beyond my 6th birthday, and I doubt that I understood then what he did for a living.

What became etched in my mind involved local moms, including my own, gathering their small children along the side of the dusty road passing through our village and waiting there in excitement for a glimpse of Kennedy's motorcade after he left a speech in nearby Monessen.

Kennedy was 45 and on a two-day tour of steel towns around Pittsburgh to stump for Democrats in a mid-term election, The Herald-American newspaper across the Monongahela River in Donora reported two days later. The speech could have easily been delivered last year because it was given at a time when Kennedy's party was about to lose seats in Congress and the governor's mansion in Harrisburg, Pa., the newspaper archives indicate at the Donora Public Library.

"Only twice in the last 100 years has the party in power, the party of the president, succeeded in picking up votes in the off year," Kennedy said on a stage erected in an A & P parking lot in Monessen. The message sound eerily familiar to those offered in the 2009 election two years after President Barack Obama won the White House.

More than 25,000 people had packed the streets around the grocery store and "every available space from one part of the city to the other," The Herald-American reported about Kennedy's visit.

Kennedy was in Democrat country that sunny morning because nearly every registered voter, dead or alive in that small city then under mafia control, shared the president's party. He won the Westmoreland County city with 7,500 votes two years earlier, with just 1,600 ballots there going to Richard M. Nixon.

"I am very conscious of who voted for me and who didn't," Kennedy said.

He began that Saturday in McKeesport after having visited Aliquippa and Downtown Pittsburgh the day before. More than 300,000 people lined the streets in Pittsburgh to catch a glimpse of Kennedy, who "was greeted more like a matinee idol than a chief executive," The Tube City Almanac reported.

Kennedy criticized Republicans in Washington, D.C., at every stop, particularly for their opposition of spending money on such domestic challenges as medicare, education and housing.

Surely the president had to be alarmed at the state of the housing in my town, where houses had turned black from decades of exposure to pollution from the steel mills in Donora and Monessen. The poor town didn't have sidewalks. It didn't even have much grass, either, because the acidic air that spewed from the Donora zinc works had killed most of the vegetation.

The Donora newspaper didn't bother to mention the president's motorcade passed through Webster en route Monessen, and then again to another stop at the Washington County Courthouse in Washington, Pa. The article simply stated Kennedy passed by Donora on the "opposite side" of the river.

Yet we were proud to greet Kennedy on Second Street near the ramp to the Donora-Webster Bridge as he waived to us from a black Lincoln Continental sedan with an open convertible.

It was a historic day for us, even though my mom and her female neighbors expressed much disappointment that the president had come to town without his fashionable wife Jacqueline.

President Kennedy, center, greets people outside Washington County Courthouse, Washington, Pa., at the end of a two-day campaign swing through southwestern Pennsylvania on October 13, 1962, during the mid-term election. Observer-Reporter


Bill said...

He smiled and waved to me as well. I was in downtown Elizabeth Boro and his caravan came up Second Ave and turned left onto to Market Street where I happened to be standing. I was 13 years old and just happened to be there, I did not know he was coming. Coming from a stanch Republican family we were no fans of the president, but this was the President of the United States. To have the President wave to you is the chance of a lifetime!

Anonymous said...

I was walking to class at Duquesne University and saw a large crowd in Mellon Square and in front of the William Penn Hotel. I asked someone what was going on and was told President Kennedy's motor cade was due to arrive any minute. I pushed my way to the front and was one of 20 or so people he shook hands with after he arrived in an open top car.

J. Florian said...

My family met JFK on the side steps on Beau St. I was about 4 or 5 years old. My older sister age 7 or 8 handed JFK a poster she made about Postal employees trying to get better work conditions; assurance of hours for substitute carriers instead of the usual showing up for work without guarantee that they'd be working that day; better injury compensation, etc. My father was a Postal Carrier hurt on the job in 1948. John Lonsway (a PO carrier) and Jean, his wife, along with my mother, Marcella Florian, were instrumental in forming local "Branch #586 of the Ladies Auxiliary NALC" which is National Association of Letter Carriers. After returning to DC, JFK and wife sent my sister 8x10 autographed photos and a letter. Link to JFK's remarks at Washington PA: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKWHA-138-002.aspx

Betsy Lowery said...

I have home movies on video of that day . I was only 4 & don't remember much. But it's nice to be able to watch them. I was being held by a family member & he was standing on the steps just above us, we were looking up at him, listening to him talk.