JFK’s visits to Maine glow in memory

This story was published on Nov. 22, 2003 on Page A5 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

The tall, slender candidate standing at the microphone kept talking in his Boston Harvard accent, but something wasn’t quite right. A radio technician tinkered with the equipment a couple of times until finally fixing the sound glitch.

“That kind of leadership is what we need – a helping hand,” quipped Sen. John F. Kennedy from a makeshift stage, without breaking the pace of his 20-minute stump speech.

Somewhere in the Bangor crowd of 1,500 supporters that day – Friday, Sept. 2, 1960 – stood an 8-year-old boy and his mother anxious to see the Democratic candidate for president.

We didn’t know it then, but Mom and I were witnessing history in the making. JFK had stopped at Bass Park on the first day of his 50-state campaign, the first Democratic candidate in 28 years to invade Republican Maine. Also, it was the only time in Bangor history the city was host to both major party candidates. GOP contender Richard M. Nixon followed Kennedy on Sept. 30.

Like many households in the state, ours was GOP all the way, and even though the rich, young, brash Irish Catholic had many strikes against him, I still appreciate Kennedy’s magnetism 43 years later.

“We don’t have coal and iron and oil, but we have human talent,” Kennedy said, flanked by a gaggle of reporters along with Sen. Edmund Muskie, Bob Baldacci, father of future Gov. John Baldacci, and other Democratic stalwarts.

“We can clean up our rivers and can provide an atmosphere to move ahead,” Kennedy continued. “We can reform our transportation system and protect our present industries. We can perfect our educational system to provide a future supply of the best-trained people.”

Dressed in an Oxford gray suit, white shirt and blue figured tie, Kennedy looked tanned and rested. In reality, he was exhausted, having left the Senate late Thursday night, and flown to Boston, Manchester, N.H., and Presque Isle the following day before appearing in Bangor. Later, in Portland, 6,500 people awaited his arrival. And on Saturday he flew off to Alaska.

Many in Bangor hoped to see Jacqueline Kennedy, seven months pregnant with John F. Kennedy Jr., but she had left the campaign trail in Boston, suffering from airsickness.

As Mom and I walked to our car after Kennedy finished speaking, I glanced back and saw an elderly man approach the stage clutching an envelope packed with what I assumed was a government grievance of some sort. Leaning forward, Kennedy spoke with the man, leaving me pondering, “He must hate this, but what a great actor he is, so believable.”

My family and I were sure Kennedy would lose Maine during the November election, and we were right. He garnered 181,159 votes to Nixon’s 240,608. But, of course, JFK went on to win the presidency by one of the narrowest margins ever.

I also was sure I’d never again see JFK in person, but this time I was wrong. One day in October 1963 word came that he would appear at a University of Maine convocation, the first sitting president to visit the campus.

So, my family and I piled into the station wagon and took our place in the stadium along with 15,000 other spectators that sunny Saturday – Oct. 19, 1963 – and heard the president deliver his last major foreign policy speech on the first anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis.

While Dad filmed Kennedy with his 8 mm movie camera, I studied his movie-star face, thinking it a bit fuller and having more character than in 1960.

We sang the “Maine Stein Song” and heard the university band play “Hail to the Chief,” the first time I think any of us had ever heard that song.

Again, JFK spoke for 20 minutes, but his words carried more weight than during his Bangor speech.

“There are rays of hope on the horizon, but we still live in the shadow of war,” he said. “It is clear there will be further disagreement between ourselves and the Soviets as well as further agreements.”

He received an honorary doctor of laws degree before reboarding his helicopter and flying away.

This time, I was certain I would not see Kennedy again. On Friday, Nov. 22, while home sick from school with a cold, I heard the phone ring at our Bangor residence. It was Dad calling from his office bearing the unbelievable news that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

Downstairs, my brother broke the news to my 90-year-old grandmother, who was staying with us for a few days.

“The president’s been shot!” he yelled, and she threw her arms wildly into the air.

This was the third assassination to occur in her lifetime; the first two were the slayings of James A. Garfield in 1881, when she was 8, and William McKinley in 1901, the year before her marriage.

Immediately the black-and-white television was switched on and the news poured out that JFK was dead. In those days, Channels 2 and 5 were our links to the outside world. Along, of course, with the Bangor Daily News, which on Saturday summed up the tragedy in two words: “KENNEDY SLAIN.”

On Sunday, Nov. 24, the TV was on while we watched in horror Jack Ruby murder Lee Harvey Oswald. Countless conspiracy theories were hatched that day.

On Monday, the Kennedy funeral was broadcast to the world. Dad finished up the 8 mm film in his movie camera and filmed the procession off the TV set. Today, that flickering movie is a strange relic, half Kennedy alive in Orono, half Kennedy dead in Washington.

On Tuesday, I returned to my sixth-grade class at the Mary Snow School and realized I had missed a generational benchmark by not hearing the news with my classmates. My teacher, James Conners, had been so anguished on Friday that he bowed his head on his desk at the head of the class.

Several months later, my sister was troubled to hear a band playing “Hail to the Chief” during a televised speech delivered by Lyndon B. Johnson, JFK’s successor.

“They have all the nerve,” she said innocently, “playing John F. Kennedy’s theme song.”