CHEYENNE -- In late November 1963 Wyoming U.S. Sen. Gale McGee took advantage of a Senate break to campaign for a second term in his home state.
The former University of Wyoming history professor, a Democrat, was first elected to the Senate in 1958 when he pulled an upset over Republican Frank Barrett in a tight race.
On the evening of Nov. 21, 1963, the McGee campaign staged a rally in Casper. The event included a film featuring fellow senators and others telling Wyoming voters why they should re-elect McGee.
The last speaker in the film was President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who emphasized how much he needed McGee in the Senate.
Midway through Kennedy's speech, the film jammed and the projector broke down. Oddly, the film had been shown at least eight times previously with no problems.
After a time, the rally sponsors were able to clear the jam and finish playing the film.
Later, McGee's secretary, Liz Strannigan, wondered about the glitch. She thought it was eerie.
On the following day, Nov. 22, 1963, McGee; his wife, Lorraine; Strannigan, and Jim Fagan of Casper, McGee's Wyoming field representative, were on the road in a rented car. They were headed for Sheridan and another campaign event that evening.
They stopped for gas in Kaycee.
Back on the highway, someone turned on the radio for the noon news and heard CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite announce that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
A while later, Cronkite said the president was dead.
“We were shell-shocked,” Strannigan said recently.
Friendship forged in Senate
Early in his first term, McGee became friends with fellow Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Their offices were fairly close to each other. Some people said they were mirror images -- both in their 40s and good speakers with full heads of reddish-brown hair.
Their friendship proved critical to Kennedy when he ran for president in 1960. During the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Wyoming was the last state on the roll call of states' delegates, as the process was alphabetical in those days. According to UW associate professor of history Phil Roberts, Kennedy needed all 15 of Wyoming's votes to gain the nomination and avoid forcing him and Lyndon Johnson into a second ballot. But just 10 1/2 of Wyoming's votes had been pledged to Kennedy.
As legend has it, McGee jumped on a chair and pleaded with the Wyoming delegates for four more votes so the state could put Kennedy over the top.
Roberts said Tracy McCraken, a Cheyenne newspaperman and UW trustee, was the state Democratic chairman and leader of the Wyoming delegation. Ted Kennedy, JFK's youngest brother who went on to serve as a senator from Massachusetts, was standing in the Wyoming delegation. The convention chairman called out, "Wyoming ... 15 votes." Without polling the Wyoming delegation, Roberts said, McCraken shouted into the microphone, "Wyoming casts all 15 of its votes for the next president of the United States ..." Johnson partisans tried to grab the mic, but the balloons were falling, the bands were playing and the Democrats had their 1960 nominee, Roberts said.
In the uproar that followed Wyoming's vote, McGee was seen jumping up and down and slapping a beaming Ted Kennedy on the back.
Roberts said it was the first and only time the Wyoming delegate's votes mattered in the national selection.
The Wyoming visit
Kennedy had visited Wyoming only two months before his death, on Sept. 25-26, 1963, with McGee accompanying him.
Air Force One landed in Cheyenne, where the police department estimated the crowd to be 15,000 to 20,000.
Kennedy then flew in a smaller plane to Laramie for a speech in the UW Fieldhouse, with the audience exceeding the building's 12,500 capacity. UW Athletics Director Glenn J. "Red" Jacoby said it was the biggest crowd since a 1952 basketball game against Brigham Young University.
JFK flew on to Billings, Mont., for yet another speech before returning to Wyoming and spending the night in the shadow of the Teton Range.
He remains the last sitting president to set foot in Laramie.
McGee’s final discussion with the president concerned bringing the first family to the Jackson area for a vacation at a later date, Strannigan said.
It was a trip that would never happen.
In the dark
Fifty years later, Strannigan vividly remembers the day JFK died in terms of numbness, uncertainty and fear in an age of no cell phones.
"It was a very long trip," she said of the McGee group's drive from Kaycee to Sheridan. "There wasn't much conversation."
Nor was there any overt display of emotion.
"I think we were shell-shocked," she said. "We could not believe that happened. We knew he was in Texas. We didn't know what was going on as far as a national emergency. We didn't know if it was an attack."
It wasn't until they arrived at the Crescent Hotel on Main Street in Sheridan that McGee was able to phone the Senate office.
He was advised to get back to Washington as quickly as possible.
McGee chartered a plane to fly him and his wife to Denver. They flew to Washington the next day.
Strannigan dropped off Fagan in Casper, then drove home to Rock Springs to return the rental car. She watched the events play out on television before flying to Washington a short time later.
"I talked to people in Washington on the phone and you could hear the bells ringing all day long, the cathedral bells and all of the churches. They rang and they rang and they rang," she said.
Rushing the hospital fence
Kennedy was a hero to young McGee.
"I saw him a lot when he was running for president and I was a page boy in the Senate," Bob said recently in a telephone interview from his home in the Washington, D.C., area. "In those days, the senators would snap their fingers if they wanted something.
"We sat on the steps and we all hoped we would get a snap from Senator Kennedy."
Bob decided on his own that night to drive to Bethesda Hospital where Kennedy's body had been taken.
The traffic was terrible but he was able to weave his car up to the hospital gate entry.
Cars were parked all over, abandoned on the grass as people rushed the fence and tried to climb over it.
"It was that sort of emotion," Bob said. "The outpouring that night was unbelievable."
On Nov. 24, 1963, Sen. McGee drove his wife and three of his four children -- David, 20; Bob, and Mary Gale, 11 -- to the Capitol to be there when the president's casket was brought in. The youngest child, Lori, stayed home with a sitter.
McGee threaded his way on to Constitution Avenue, rolled down his car window and told a police officer who he was and that he had to get to the Capitol.
The police officer escorted the McGee car down Constitution and led the family to a parking lot behind the Capitol.
A number of official-looking black cars were already parked there.
The McGees' car -- "a flashy blue and white car with big fins" -- stood out then and later in published photos of the area, Bob said.
The family walked up the center steps and stood at the front of the roped-off area.
A photo of the family with Bob McGee wiping away a tear was published on the cover of "Parade" magazine among other publications.
End of the story
Sen. McGee won a second term in 1964 and a third in 1970, both against Republican challenger John Wold of Casper. In 1976 he lost his bid for a fourth term to Republican Malcolm Wallop.
Former President Jimmy Carter appointed McGee as U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, a position he held until 1981. McGee then formed a public relations firm in Washington, D.C., that specialized in international and public affairs.
Strannigan continued to work for McGee until his death in 1992.
McGee remains the last Democrat to be elected to the Senate from Wyoming.