The day President Kennedy came to Tacoma

50 years ago this week, the president gave a speech few can remember during a visit many can’t forget

Staff columnistSeptember 22, 2013 

They expected 12,000, but more than double that showed up, encouraged by record fall temperatures, an early release from schools and colleges, and a chance to see a president anointed with rock-star status before there were even many of those.

“Big Crowd, Sun, Await JFK Here,” The Tacoma News Tribune blared on Sept. 26, 1963, the afternoon before the arrival of the nation’s 35th president.

Tacoma, like many smaller cities, wasn’t often on the itinerary of politicians. Kennedy was just the 10th to appear while in office. But his conservation tour seemed aimed at locales identified by their ties to national parks and the environment and to college students who might respond.

Grand Forks, Duluth, Cheyenne, Billings, Jackson Hole, Great Falls, Hanford, Salt Lake City, Tongue Point, Ore., Lassen National Park, Whiskey Dam in California.

And Tacoma. When he heard in August that the president was planning a Western swing, Pacific Lutheran University president Robert Mortvedt took a chance and contacted U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson.

Might it be possible for the president to address PLU’s convocation?

Jackson said he would check with the White House. He later called back and wondered whether PLU would share the event with its sometimes rival, the University of Puget Sound? Mortvedt agreed, and the event was on.

CHENEY STADIUM THE PLACE

Of course the venue would be Cheney Stadium. Built in 1960, just in time to bring the Pacific Coast League back to the city, it was the largest place available. The view of Mount Rainier was a bonus.

Crowd estimates were based on the seating available — 10,000 seats in the grandstand and bleachers plus several thousand folding chairs placed in the infield.

“Did you ever try to borrow 3,600 folding chairs?” asked City of Tacoma spokesman Hobert “Bud” Bond to no one in particular. They gathered them in from the public schools, the two colleges and the park district.

Standing room would be allowed between those chairs and the grandstand and in the outfield if necessary. But no one expected it would be necessary or desirable to stand behind the stage where the view would be the back of Kennedy’s head.

One area was deemed off limits.

“Secret Service men took a look at Tightwad Hill and turned a thumbs down on this vantage point and its sister knoll above left field,” The News Tribune reported of the hill where those without tickets could watch a game for free.

Even with what we now would see as lax security — something that would become horribly apparent less than two months later in Dallas — viewpoints outside the stadium proper were not allowed. And a request by a commercial photographer to fly over the event in a helicopter was nixed.

The presidential visit was planned to the minute by advance teams. Because the audience had to be in place hours before the president spoke, high school, college and military bands were summoned to entertain. Even that brought details that had to be ironed out.

“Need Musicians Union approval for military band to play,” read a note found in PLU’s files by archivist Kerstin Ringdahl. County Commissioner “Harry Sprinker will obtain.”

“Those who want seats will have to scramble to get there early,” advised The News Tribune. The gates would open at 9 a.m.; Kennedy would arrive at 11:50.

The expected audience grew throughout the morning, filling the seats, crowding the infield and even packing into the outfield grass. Many were high school kids released from school but arriving too late to sit.

“It looks as if there are more people standing than sitting,” Police Chief Charles Zittel noted. In sexist prose pretty typical of the time, a Trib reporter wrote that people were “packed together behind the barricade tighter than a size-18 gal in a size-8 girdle.”

Despite the event being televised live by local station KTNT, people kept coming. By 11 a.m., the call went out to all on-duty and off-duty state troopers from Tacoma and Seattle to help the 146-person force of local cops, deputies and MPs from Fort Lewis.

HELICOPTERS LAND

The first sign the president was on his way was the arrival in the parking lot of five helicopters carrying the traveling press.

Kennedy’s Marine helicopter arrived on schedule, and he was greeted by the academically garbed university presidents and escorted to the stage between two lines of college professors, 100 per side, also wearing caps and gowns.

The Trib noted several days later that it wasn’t all pomp and circumstance.

“This was carefully planned by the SS as a discrete security measure, protecting the chief executive from an onrush,” the newspaper noted.

“The president wore a charcoal wool suit with a pale blue shirt with a Navy blue and pale blue figured tie,” a reporter noted. “His nose appeared sunburned.”

Of course it was. Kennedy had spent the previous afternoon in even hotter weather at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where he dedicated the N Reactor and helped break ground for a steam generator that would produce power for civilian use.

When the time came, the president was given a wand with a uranium tip. By waving it in front of a counter, it triggered a massive earthmover in the distance that dropped its shovel into the ground.

“I am assured this is strictly on the level, that there’s no one hiding in that machine to operate it,” Kennedy joked after the first shovel of soil was remotely turned.

At Cheney Stadium the stage was filled with 15 people, all men, all white. Had U.S. Rep. Julia Butler Hansen attended, one of the three Pierce County commissioners was to have been dumped.

As per the plan, Gov. Al Rosellini introduced Jackson, who noted that the president was able to see Mount Rainier, where a new visitor center was being built. Jackson, in turn, introduced the state’s senior U.S. senator, Warren Magnuson, who introduced Kennedy.

TOLLEFSONS AND KENNEDYS

The president abandoned his prepared speech and began with a joke that drew laughter then but needs some explanation today. In recognizing the dignitaries, he cited both “Congressman (Thor) Tollefson” and “Mayor (Harold M.) Tollefson.”

“I am glad to come here and see the Tollefson brothers,” Kennedy said. “It makes the Kennedys feel a little better when they see what is happening out here.” Too much power in one family was a criticism leveled at him and his brothers, U.S. Attorney General Robert and U.S. Sen. Edward.

And to Magnuson, he wondered jokingly why he would assume that Massachusetts does not have scenic wonders comparable to Mount Rainier.

“If you see sometimes the blue hills of Boston stretching 300 feet straight up, covered by snow in the middle of winter, you can know what nature can really do to produce a vigorous race,” the president said.

A speech initially touted as one promoting environmental conservation would not get much praise today.

“We are glad to be here today to see what you have,” Kennedy said. “But in looking at nature, I have been impressed really more by man in my last three days, because everything I’ve seen – Jackson Hole and all the rest – was given to us by nature, but man has done something about it.”

Improvements, he said, such as the Hanford works “where the atom is being harnessed for peaceful use in the most impressive and advanced scientific effort in the world,” and the Mormon Tabernacle in Utah.

The speech mostly turned on the need for quality education and for preparing students such as those in attendance to move the nation and world forward.

“I want to see in 1963, and in 1970, and in 1980 the best brains we have meeting the most difficult problems that this country has ever seen,” Kennedy said.

Afterward, the president made his way back through the throng, a crowded path that made him 12 minutes late for departure.

“He slowly made his way toward the exit, but appeared to be in no hurry, talking to people, many of whom demonstrated signs of hero worship,” The News Tribune noted.

The city’s Bud Bond revealed a last-minute detail that, had it not been completed, might have made for a quite different event.

The spokesman said someone mentioned that Kennedy tended to lean into the lectern during the heat of a speech, hand clenched in a fist to stress a point. But the lectern on the temporary stage had not been bolted to the platform.

Had it not been fixed, Bond said, “the audience would be treated to the unwanted sight of the nation’s chief executive falling three feet onto the infield grass.

INDELIBLE IMPRESSION

It was both discouraging and heartening to know that the press viewed the event with a bit of cynicism. Although the tour was deemed official and presidential, even then it was hard to accept that a separation from campaign politics was possible.

After it was over, one News Tribune reporter wrote that “another personal appearance in his Western Conservation nonpolitical tour (or is it a Western Political Non-conservation tour)” was over.

The litter left behind, he exaggerated, was more than was produced by an entire season of the hometown Giants.

But the newspaper’s editorial page was more generous. After noting the political aspects and agreeing that some Republicans might not be as enamored of the telegenic president, it put the appearance in perspective.

Adults, it said, would recognize the historic import of the visit and could tell the children in attendance that “seeing the president in the flesh will leave an indelible impression and they will cherish the experience and talk about it throughout their lives.”

It did. And they did.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657
peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com

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