JFK visit to NEPA still stirs memories
Three years before his assassination in an open-air limousine dashed a nation's innocence, John F. Kennedy rode relatively unscathed in other convertibles through Northeast Pennsylvania.
Here, crowds aimed only their joy, exuberance and hope at him from every direction.
On Friday, Oct. 28, 1960, upward of 500,000 greeted the 43-year-old senator from Massachusetts as his motorcade rolled into the eastern regions of Pennsylvania, a key state if he was to realize his dream of the presidency.
Huge morning numbers in Allentown and Bethlehem only grew as he headed north to mining country - Pottsville, Hazleton, Nanticoke, Wilkes-Barre, Pittston and Scranton.
These crowds drew blood, too. By the time the Democratic presidential nominee reached Pittston, it oozed from his hand.
"His hand was bleeding from people grabbing," said former Pittston resident Michael Clark, then a senior at St. John's High School in Pittston, who successfully fought to shake hands with the candidate, still a great moment in his life to him.
"Shaking hands with Kennedy? Wow."
Long remembered as the greatest political event in Lackawanna County history, Kennedy's entire trip through the region can be viewed as historic, coming only 11 days before his election as the 35th president. It might have cemented his victory in a Pennsylvania where Democrats had only recently outnumbered Republicans. On Election Day, Kennedy won the state by winning only 15 of its 67 counties, mainly those he visited during that and three earlier trips.
As the motorcade crawled through surging crowds, especially in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, Kennedy's presence lifted the spirits of many reeling from high unemployment, some initiated by the Knox Mine Disaster 20 months earlier. A dozen men died in the tragedy, which signaled the end of underground mining in the local anthracite coal fields.
"It was the second coming," said former Scranton Mayor James McNulty, then 15, who stood outside the Hotel Casey in Scranton amid the throngs. "The crowds, they did not only want to see him, they wanted to touch him. And I'm talking about young people, old people, men, women, didn't matter."
The outpouring was spontaneous and real, but the caravan hardly unplanned.
Kennedy started planning for days like this almost four years earlier after losing the Democratic vice presidential nomination to Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver. In early 1957, Kennedy hired a staff that worked to ensure his nomination as the Democratic candidate for president in 1960.
"We went into each state," an anonymous Kennedy campaign staff member told newswire reporter Ralph McGill in July 1960, after Kennedy captured the nomination. "We made it local. We had an idea. We picked the young politicians who were tired of trying to break in. We gave them help and ideas. This was more than three years ago. All this time we have kept in touch. ... We have seen to it that never once did they feel neglected or forgotten."
The outreach included connecting with a young Lackawanna County lawyer named Richard P. Conaboy, now a federal judge, then national committeeman for the Young Democrats of Pennsylvania. In 1958, as he headed for the national Young Democrats convention in Reno, Nev., Mr. Conaboy, a Scranton school board member, read Kennedy's book, "Profiles In Courage," on the flight out.
"I was impressed with a lot of that stuff (in the book) and he was extremely impressive at our convention," Judge Conaboy said. "The Young Democrats, pretty much unanimously said, 'This is the guy who should be president.' ... I came back to Scranton and became chairman of the Lackawanna County Democratic Committee."
Not everyone in Pennsylvania shared the feeling. Gov. David Leo Lawrence, a Catholic himself, thought Kennedy couldn't win because he was Catholic. No Catholic had ever won the presidency.
Surrounded by the Democratic organizations of U.S. Rep. Bill Green Sr. in Philadelphia, Lackawanna County Commissioner Michael Lawler in the northeast and others elsewhere, Mr. Lawrence relented and backed Kennedy, who almost immediately committed to visiting Scranton on Oct. 28.
"Everybody wanted him to come to their place," Judge Conaboy said. "Our Lackawanna County Democratic Committee was highly respected. Mike Lawler was a very close friend of Mr. Lawrence and an outstanding political leader who was a great friend of John Kennedy's father."
It did not escape the attention of the Kennedy campaign that many of the states they thought they needed to win included a growing population of Catholic voters. At the time, many Protestants were concerned that Mr. Kennedy would owe his allegiance to the pope, not his country. In a famous September 1960 speech in Houston, Mr. Kennedy vowed to keep church and state separate, but that did not stop his campaign from targeting Catholic-rich areas. Pennsylvania overall was 30 percent Catholic and a lot lived in its northeast counties.
So into Pennsylvania he rolled that Oct. 28. Some of his venues hinted at the future. In Pottsville, Mr. Kennedy spoke on Garfield Square, named after President James A. Garfield, the second of the nation's four murdered presidents. In Hazleton, where Kennedy spoke in front of the Altamont Hotel, the words "murder" and "killer" appeared on a nearby theater marquee.
That day, none of that meant a thing.
The crowds saw only John F. Kennedy and reveled in him.
In Pottsville, 12,000. In Hazleton, another 12,000.
In Nanticoke, 10,000 greeted him. In Wilkes-Barre, 40,000.
After that, more of the same.
The motorcade headed through the West Side of the Wyoming Valley, crossing into huge throngs in Pittston at the Water Street Bridge where Mr. Clark jumped on the future president's car to shake his hand. A motorcycle-mounted state trooper warded him off.
"He kicked me, the son of a bitch," Mr. Clark said. "I had the mark for a long time, but I didn't care. ... It was John Kennedy."
It took Kennedy 45 minutes just to lurch three or four blocks through Pittston, Mr. Clark said.
During the day, the crowd surges actually damaged motorcade cars.
"We had to buy two of them, they got so destroyed coming up through the valley," Judge Conaboy said. "The doors got torn off one of them."
Finally, the caravan headed up North Main Street through Duryea, Old Forge and West Scranton.
In downtown Scranton, it came down Lackawanna Avenue toward the Hotel Casey where Kennedy was supposed to have a chance to rest before his speech at the Watres Armory. In the darkness, flashes of cameras and television lights illuminated the dashing young candidate, still shaking hands, still perched in an open-air car. The crowd cheered and screamed as he went by.
"It was mass hysteria," Mr. McNulty said.
The Watres speech was supposed to start at 8 p.m., which is about when the motorcade reached the Hotel Casey where outdoor floodlights lit the building.
Upstairs in a third-floor suite rented by the county Democratic Party, an exhausted Kennedy slipped into a bathtub to soak his aching back, Judge Conaboy said.
IT WAS 'BEDLAM'
This was no private soak. The bathroom was full of people, including press secretary Pierre Salinger and top aide Kenneth O'Donnell, who ushered in reporters for interviews, Judge Conaboy said.
"Bedlam is a good word," he said.
Then, it was off to the armory. In the car, Judge Conaboy, whose wedding anniversary and a daughter's birthday coincided with that day, instructed the candidate on which locals to mention during his speech. It was a slow trip, with state troopers walking in front of the car the mile to the armory to clear crowds.
Outside the armory, a crowd estimated by local authorities at 30,000 to 40,000 had waited hours hoping for a glimpse. They had no chance of getting inside the armory, stuffed with another 16,000, so loudspeakers outside allowed them to hear the speech.
"My mother was 94, and she sat out for four hours to hear him speak," Judge Conaboy said.
OFF THE CUFF
The speech was billed as a major address, but Kennedy ignored his prepared text and focused on the nation's auto and housing industries, saying both lagged under Mr. Eisenhower and Mr. Nixon.
"If you want to sit still in Scranton, if you want to continue the present leadership, if you want to see the United States fail to move forward throughout the world and in our own country, Mr. Nixon is your man," Kennedy said. "I believe that the 1960s can be, in Dickens' phrase, the best of years or the worst of years. We can stand still here at home. ... We can also do other things. We can build this country of ours. We can provide jobs for our people. We can provide good education for our children. We can provide security under Social Security for our older citizens, and we can build this country so that it serves as an ornament to people all around the world who also want to be free."
At the precise hour Kennedy took the stage at the armory, President Eisenhower addressed a national television audience from a Philadelphia fundraiser. In his first full-throated defense of his vice president during the campaign, Eisenhower called Nixon the "best qualified" to take over.
After Scranton, Kennedy flew to suburban Philadelphia, where another crowd that waited hours heard him speak under a tent and in rain at a suburban country club shortly before 2 a.m.
Before the caravan left for the Wilkes-Barre-Scranton Airport, Mr. Salinger called the visit "the wildest day of the campaign."
The trip only solidified the region's love for Kennedy.
"It made it a personal relationship with you," Mr. McNulty said. "So that when Nov. 22nd in '63 happened, it was a family tragedy here. It wasn't just mourning a president. It wasn't just mourning a hero. It was mourning someone you took into your heart."
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