My classes had barely begun as a University of Wyoming freshman from Cheyenne when regional newspapers carried wire service articles on Sept. 17, 1963, saying President John F. Kennedy would make a swing through Western states, including three stops in Wyoming on Sept. 25-26.
JFK was scheduled to fly into Cheyenne on Air Force One, board a smaller airplane to fly to Laramie for a speech, then on to Billings, Mont., for another speech and back to Wyoming for a night in the shadow of the Teton Range.
This announcement came as Kennedy and the rest of the nation reacted to horrible news out of the Deep South. On Sept. 9, Kennedy had federalized Alabama National Guard troops and served Gov. George Wallace with a federal court order enjoining him from interfering with the integration of public schools in Birmingham. A week later, four African-American girls attending church in Birmingham were killed and 23 other church members injured in a bombing.
In a United Press International article by White House correspondent Merriman Smith, Kennedy voiced “outrage and grief” over the bombing and expressed hope the tragedy would awaken the entire nation “to a realization of the folly of racial injustice. It is regrettable that public disparagement of law and order has encouraged violence which has fallen on the innocent”, Kennedy said, a veiled reference to Gov. Wallace.
Kennedy was also dealing with the Cold War that month. A few days before JFK came to UW, he met with a delegation from the Soviet Union, including Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. He told them:
“I would say to the leaders of the Soviet Union, and to their people, that if either of our countries is to be fully secure, we need a much better weapon than the H-bomb – a weapon better than ballistic missiles or nuclear submarines – and that better weapon is peaceful cooperation.”
Kennedy’s four-day, 11-state trip was formed around the theme of conservation of natural resources. He first stopped at Milford in northeast Pennsylvania where he attended the dedication of the ancestral home of Gifford Pinchot, first director of the U.S. Forest Service, as a national center for natural resource conservation.
A 1,000-mile flight brought JFK to Duluth, Minn., then he visited Ashland, Wis., and the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks.
From there he flew into Cheyenne on the morning of the 25th with Wyoming’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Gale McGee alongside. Mayor Bill Nation and Laramie County Democratic Party Chairman Rod Crowlie welcomed them.
Wyoming Eagle Editor Bernard Horton’s lead story on Sept. 26 told of the excitement generated by JFK’s visit. “More than 30,000 persons, one-tenth of Wyoming’s total population, turned out yesterday to see, hear and cheer” the president in Cheyenne, Laramie and Jackson. The Cheyenne Police Department estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people were at the Cheyenne Municipal Airport when the president arrived. Horton declared this gathering to be by far “the largest ever to greet a visiting dignitary” in Cheyenne.
The president said during his brief remarks that Wyoming personal income had risen 8 percent since 1960, the fifth-largest increase in the nation. He asked how many people in the crowd were actually born in Wyoming. He also referred to the fact that the late Joseph C. O’Mahoney, who had represented Wyoming in the U.S. Senate, was a native of Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts. Kennedy then descended from the platform and walked the length of a chest-high fence, shaking hands with onlookers, some of whom had waited for more than two hours.
Kennedy was greeted in Laramie by Republican Gov. Cliff Hansen, UW President George “Duke” Humphrey and Laramie Mayor William Steckel, a UW history professor who replaced Prof. McGee after he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Kennedy purportedly asked Boy Scouts standing along the airport fence to recite their Scout Oath.
With him in Laramie were Democratic National Committeeman William Norris and State Chairman Walter Phelan, both of Cheyenne.
At the Fieldhouse in Laramie, two UW student folk singers, Marcie Ford and Vern Swain, provided entertainment while a crowd of much more than the 12,500 seating capacity waited, the Eagle article reported. UW Athletics Director Glenn J. “Red” Jacoby said it was the biggest crowd since a 1952 basketball game against Brigham Young University.
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Many more stood along the motorcade in Laramie to catch a glimpse. One of those was my future father-in-law, Paul George Dekanek, a U.S. Army veteran who lost an eye in World War II. George snapped two slides of Kennedy and McGee in the back seat of the open limousine as it passed between the Half Acre Gym and the Education College.
A Sept. 26 UPI article describing the JFK visit noted that some Young Republicans carried anti-McGee signs visible from the president’s motorcade. One said, “Yankee si, McGee no,” and another said, “Keep politics and McGee in D.C.” The students were Michael McClellan, a Cody senior, Bob Frisby, a Cody sophomore (son of a future member of the Wyoming Legislature) and Bob Stolts, a Casper sophomore.
Inside the Fieldhouse, state Young Democrats President Ken Lester carried a sign saying, “Hi Jack.” An ROTC student took the sign from him and tore it up. A Secret Service representative said his agency had no concern about signs. Lester later registered an objection to the denial of his First Amendment right.
Early in his speech Kennedy said, “There is nothing more encouraging than for those of us to leave the rather artificial city of Washington and come and travel across the United States and realize what is here, the beauty, the diversity, the wealth, and the vigor of the people.”
Eagle Editor Horton reported that the president initially departed from his prepared remarks to speak to the students directly. “What we are attempting to do is develop talents in a nation which requires education,” he said, adding that “knowledge is power” and that it “can be brought to bear to improve our lives.” But he said the university is not maintained merely to help graduates enjoy a prosperous life, but to prepare graduates to serve their state and country.
The bulk of his speech was devoted to the use and the conservation of natural resources, during which he mentioned converting oil shale into usable fuels, coal gasification at the mines, liquefaction of coal into gasoline and mining Wyoming’s soda ash. He talked about “very large-scale nuclear reactors” being used for desalinization of sea water. He said Sen. McGee “has proposed an energetic study of the technology of electrometallurgy.” (His full speech as given – and some handwritten notes for his “knowledge is power” segment – are available online at the JFK presidential library).
Among the challenges facing the country, he said, was “what we should do in the Congo or Vietnam, or in Latin America.”
One of the thousands of UW students who heard JFK speak that day in the Fieldhouse was future Wyoming Secretary of State Kathy Karpan of Rock Springs, now an attorney in Cheyenne. Karpan was editor of the UW student newspaper, the Branding Iron, and shook JFK’s hand as he exited. In an article she wrote a year or so later for the book “Those Good Years at Wyoming U,” Karpan set down her impressions of the man who is still the youngest person elected president:
“In the thousand times I have tried to recall what he looked like, I remember mostly an impression of health, a deep tan, and his young, full head of hair brushed back by the slight wind, and something more that defies description. ... He radiated an intense personality, an exciting vitality .... As Governor Hansen said later, ‘If one word might describe the average reaction, it was that here, indeed, was Greatness.’”
Also in attendance was a 1959 Natrona County High School graduate who had just transferred to UW after two years at Yale. His name: Richard Bruce Cheney.
In his autobiography, “In My Time,” Cheney says Kennedy delivered “an eloquent call to public service” that day in the Fieldhouse. After the speech, he went outside and saw Kennedy’s convertible pulling away with students running after him. “He had inspired us all,” said Cheney, who went on to become a U.S. congressman, secretary of defense and vice president.
No sitting president has visited Laramie since Kennedy’s plane left the Brees Field runway that day 50 years ago.