Remembering President Kennedy

On this day, sixty years ago, the youngest man was elected to our nation’s highest office. His name was John F. Kennedy.

John was a born-and-bred American, of Irish descent, who had been educated at Harvard and served in the United States’s Navy in World War II. In 1943, when his PT boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer, Kennedy, despite grave injuries, led the survivors through perilous waters to safety.

Returning home from war, Kennedy became a Democratic Congressman for Massachusetts, advancing to the Senate in 1953. That same year, he married Jacquelien “Jackie” Bouvier. Together, they would change everything.

Jonathan Jeffrey,
with the 2014 Kentucky History Award.
Photo courtesy WKU.

In 1960, Kennedy was a first-ballot nominee for President. Millions watched his debates with Richard Nixon and saw Kennedy as he campaigned throughout the nation. On October 8, he visited Bowling Green, Kentucky, riding through town in a convertible. As the Bowling Green Daily News recounted in a 2013 article, many still remember Kennedy’s visit to town. Included among them are many who contributed to WKU’s JFK Memory Project, organized by recently retired head of WKU Special Collections, Jonathan Jeffrey. The project won the 2014 Kentucky History Award, having collected memories from over 130 people.

Included among the memories are those of many children who witnessed Kennedy’s visit and later assassination. Marsha Skipworth recounted of Kennedy’s visit:

I remember JFK visiting the little city of Bowling Green and I lived on the 31W-bypass which was called Laurel Ave. back in 1960. My family, friends and neighbors from that area (which is where Arby’s, the Laundromat and a car wash are today) stood on their front porches and/or sidewalks that lined the street of that portion of BG. I was amazed even then, only a first grader at Eleventh St. School that I got to see JFK in his motorcade slowly making his way in front of our house! We were so thrilled to see him in person for just a few minutes and never did I think in my wildest dreams that this was such an historical moment only a few yards from my home!

Marsha Skipworth, Bowling Green, KY

What made Kennedy’s campaign – and election – all the more special was what it symbolized for Catholics in the country. As Arnold “Arnie” Petrus of Bowling Green recalled, many people feared that electing a Catholic to office meant the Church – and hence the Pope – would have significant influence. But no matter the background, many young people – especially students at Western – wanted to see Kennedy during his visit. Arnie and his friend, Ron Johnson, drove downtown and joined the crowds near City Hall. Towards the end of Kennedy’s speech, Ron took off through the crowd, reaching the front row and reaching up to shake Kennedy’s hand. Kennedy shook Ron’s hand. Later that evening, Arnie and Ron went to Ron’s parents’ home in Utica, where his Southern Baptist family insisted he wash his hands “before you eat a Baptist meal.”

The next school year (1961-2), Arnie befriended Roger Henry Laughlin Futrell, the Young Democratic Chairman of Kentucky, during his visit to Western to check a private collection on Jackie Kennedy’s behalf, for contributions to her restoration of the White House. After checking the collection, Roger rung the White House, speaking directly with Jackie Kennedy about the collection and deciding what should go to the White House. On November 22, 1963, Arnie returned from student teaching to his dorm, where students were glued to the lobby television set.

We watched late into the night on the only TV allowed in the dorm. I was lucky as I was good friends with the dorm director, and his wife.  We watched their color TV as the plane returned from Dallas and we realized the casket bearing the body was a different color. 

The next day, Western had decided to go ahead with the game, as it was felt best to do. We donned our usual shirts and ties and went to the hilltop stadium. Taps were played, and a grey cloudy sky seemed right for what was happening. We saw Oswald killed on Television and most of us still have our theories on that whole thing. The casket in the rotunda, and Mrs. Kennedy kissing it, with Caroline and John John by her side.  The phrase, and she placed the ring upon his finger… the solemn funeral procession from White House to capitol to Arlington. The lighting of the eternal flame….and all that followed.

Arnold “Arnie” Petrus

Today, we remember that optimistic day in November 1960, when a young Catholic made history by becoming President. As the Kentucky Museum and WKU Department of Special Collections continue to collect political memorabilia, we leave you with examples of Kennedy artifacts held in the Rather-Westerman Collection.

Homemade hat in support of Kennedy, 1984.45.1
Homemade sign for Kennedy’s visit, signed by President Kennedy. 1984.45.2

These artifacts available for adoption, which will sponsor conservation work, research, and continued care long into the future. To adopt an artifact in the Rather-Westerman Collection, including the Kennedy ones shown here, make a $20 gift through this link and put the catalog number in the Additional Information box. Thank you.

Published by kentuckymuseumwku

The Kentucky Museum is located in the Kentucky Building on the campus of Western Kentucky University. The Museum houses several changing exhibits. There are a variety of partnerships, services, opportunities, workshops, camps and other outreach provided to the public each year.