'A remarkable and exciting day': Residents recall Kennedy's visit to Belleville

News-DemocratNovember 21, 2013 

Fifty years ago when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, residents of Southern Illinois mourned along with the rest of the nation.

Some felt they had a special connection to the 35th president because they heard him speak -- or in some cases even touched Kennedy -- during his whirlwind tour of the metro-east on Oct. 3, 1960, when he made two speeches in Belleville and also spoke in Alton, East St. Louis, Granite City and Venice during a campaign swing a month before his election.

To this day, people who were there say Kennedy's visit to Belleville is one of the most sensational things to happen in the city's two centuries of history.

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"It was a remarkable and exciting day," said Alan Dixon, who was a state representative on the day Kennedy came to the metro-east, and later was elected a U.S. Senator. "I can tell you that I have never seen the downtown area, the area around the Public Square and the old courthouse so crowded. Every way you could look there were people. They were on the street and in the windows, just everywhere."

The crowd packed downtown Belleville despite overcast skies and occasional drizzling rain that couldn't dampen the enthusiasm of supporters. Some of them waited for hours for Kennedy to arrive and to speak on the steps of the old St. Clair County Courthouse. Others waited along West Main Street for a glimpse of the Kennedy motorcade as the future president waved to residents, stopping or slowing down when it passed the several schools along the route.

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Richard Goldenhersh, who later became a St. Clair County judge, was a junior at Belleville Township High School when Kennedy's motorcade passed the school on West Main Street that morning. Students filled the sidewalks and the sunken garden out front, waiting for a glimpse of the presidential candidate.

"We knew he was coming by and the teachers allowed us to go outside to see him," Goldenhersh said. "He didn't get out of the open limousine. But it drove by very slowly and he shook hands with people as he passed."

Although the 1960 election was very much in doubt at the time, Goldenhersh said there was a sense that history was in the making.

"I remember that he seemed very comfortable in his own skin, as the expression goes. It was truly a unique time and a generational shift. I remember my father said Kennedy was the first president in his life who was younger than he was," Goldenhersh recalled.

Click the campaign button below for an interactive exploration of JFK's visit to Belleville

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John Goodwin, also a retired St. Clair County judge, was a seventh-grader at St. Mary's School at the time. Goodwin, whose class made posters for Kennedy, who was Catholic, waited excitedly that day for Kennedy on the sidewalk in front of the school at 17th and West Main.

Teachers cleared out their classrooms and let the kids go out front to get an up-close look at the man who would be president.

Kennedy's motorcade, on its way downtown, came to a halt just 25 feet from Goodwin as Kennedy paused to shake hands with Monsignor Joseph Orlet.

"The whole school was out there on the sidewalk," Goodwin said. "I stood there, fascinated. He looked just like he did on TV -- except that he was in color."

Goodwin said the brief glimpse of the young president remains as fresh in his mind now as it was 53 years ago.

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At the Public Square, people arrived early to try to get up close to a stage that was built on the steps of the old St. Clair County Courthouse. People who were there recalled that Kennedy was running late and that the crowd grew and grew until there was barely any place left to stand. Some on the opposite side of the Square from the platform said they couldn't even hear Kennedy when he spoke. But at least they were there.

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Marilee Boeving -- now Marilee Black -- was 17 and had just graduated from high school a few months earlier. She was at her father's newly established business, the Belleville Barber College, a few blocks away on North Illinois Street that morning. She had no plans to go to the Kennedy rally, but her dad persistently suggested she should walk up the street to see history in the making.

"I was amazed by the crowd," Black said. "There were many, many people."

Black said she was standing behind a barricade on the West Main Street side of the courthouse when Kennedy's motorcade pulled up and she found herself face to face with him.

"He got out of the car. He was running for president so, obviously, I knew who he was. He didn't shake my hand or anything. But I was brave enough that I reached out and touched his arm as he passed. Today they would probably put me away for something like that," she said.

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Kennedy made his way to a platform on the courthouse steps and started off his speech with cheeky comments about the fact that a building across the street had a prominent sign that declared it was the county's Republican Party headquarters.

After introducing longtime Congressman Mel Price, Sen. Paul Douglas and Otto Kerner, who was elected in November 1960 to the first of two terms as Illinois' governor, Kennedy joked:

"I feel somewhat embarrassed saying anything unkind about the Republicans right in front of their headquarters," Kennedy said to laughs and loud applause "I don't want them to call the vice president (Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate for president in 1960) and say we are mean in any way. But we are just trying to tell the truth."

Kennedy went on to speak about the need for the United States to develop more engineers and scientists to stay ahead of the Soviet Union technologically and to keep a strong military to persuade the Soviet Union not to attack our country or its allies.

Then he foreshadowed the inaugural address he would make three months later when he urged Americans to "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." He told the Belleville crowd, "I run for the office of the presidency not promising the things I am going to do for the country, but asking you to join with me in serving our country, in making it greater, in making it stronger, in making it fulfill its manifest destiny."

Dixon said the speech at the courthouse was brief and not very specific about Kennedy's post-election plans. But Dixon said he found Kennedy's words and his overall vision to be inspiring:

"It shared almost exactly my view and my state of what we thought we ought to have in this country as a whole," Dixon said.

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As the speech ended, 14-year-old Dennis Jung, who was a sophomore at Belleville's Cathedral High School, where they let students out early to see Kennedy, worked his way through the crowd to the platform. He was unable to get to the front of the stage, so Jung crawled underneath the platform made of a plywood deck built on top of wooden planks.

"I was under there and a lady yelled, 'Stick out your hand, stick out your hand!'" Jung said.

He reached his right hand out from beneath the platform just as Kennedy walked down the steps. The next thing he knew, Kennedy bent down to see him beneath the stage.

"Sure as heck, he shook it," Jung said. His eyes met with the future president for a moment and then Kennedy was gone as he grabbed more hands on his way back to his waiting car. "I was overwhelmed."

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Belleville resident Ruth Zimmerman, then a 24-year-old mother of a 2-year-old son, almost didn't go see Kennedy because she didn't have a babysitter. But she decided to take her son along to witness history and rode a bus to the Square early enough to get in the front third of the audience.

After the speech was over she was walking in front of the Meredith Home on South Illinois Street when police told people to clear the way so Kennedy's car could leave.

"They passed in front of us really slow," Zimmerman said. "He was shaking hands as he passed and I reached out. He touched my hand more than shaking it. But it's something that I will always remember."

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Kennedy's motorcade headed to Augustine's Restaurant after the downtown appearance for a luncheon and another speech.

"That place could fit about 3,000 people in its main dining room," Dixon said. "And the whole place was as packed as it could be from wall to wall."

Kennedy, who made 13 campaign speeches that day from Springfield to Carbondale, was hoping for a moment to catch his breath when he arrived at the restaurant. When he walked in the front door of Augustine's and saw the mammoth crowd, Kennedy turned to Dixon and asked for directions to the restroom.

Unfortunately for the candidate, Kennedy had to make his way through a crowd that seemed to be whipped into a higher level of frenzy with every hand he shook on the way. When he re-emerged, the crowd roared, and Kennedy thanked them for their patience, Dixon recalled.

"Ladies, and gentlemen, in every presidential candidate's itinerary there is always five minutes for lunch and rest, and then you move on," Kennedy quipped. "But I want to express my thanks to you all."

He then introduced Edgar Mauer, who was a member of the crew of PT-109, the torpedo boat Kennedy commanded while in the Navy.

"We have the good fortune to have a member of my crew who was on my torpedo boat in World War II who lives in this area of East St. Louis," Kennedy said. "He was on a merchant ship that got sunk in the Solomon Islands and he had the bad fortune to then come on my boat, which got sunk. I am glad to see him today. It is the first time I have seen him for 17 years. We are delighted he is here."

He then introduced the parents of Gerald Zinser of Belleville, another PT-109 crew member, who were in the crowd. Zinser, who retired from the Navy in 1957, was working for the U.S. Postal Service in Florida in 1960 so he couldn't attend the Belleville appearance. However, after Kennedy was elected president, Zinser rode in the inaugural parade on a float that replicated PT-109.

Zinser later was an extra in the movie about Kennedy's ill-fated torpedo boat which sank after being run over by a Japanese destroyer. He was the last surviving member of Kennedy's crew. Zinser died in 2001 at age 82.

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During his remarks at Augustine's, Kennedy spoke of his vision for higher wages for American workers, investment in infrastructure and education, and an idea for a medical program that would provide medical care for senior citizens as he tried to create a contrast with Nixon.

"Every four years the Republican candidate for the presidency says it doesn't matter which party wins, we are all for the same things, we are all for the same goals," Kennedy said. "Well, if we are all for the same goals, why did the Republicans defeat our efforts to provide a minimum wage of $1.25, and medical care for our aged citizens, and federal aid to education, and housing to rebuild our cities? Our goals are not the same, nor are the means the same, nor have they been since Theodore Roosevelt."

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As he wound up his Augustine's speech, Dixon turned to the person sitting next to him and said "This guy is going to win!"

The person next to Dixon was much more skeptical about the prospects for Kennedy, locked in a tight battle with Nixon. The man told Dixon not to get his hopes up because he figured Kennedy was surely going to lose the election in six weeks.

"The hell he is," Dixon said. "He's going to win!"

Kennedy went on to prevail in what, at the time, was the closest presidential election in history.

"I was extremely fond of him," Dixon recalled of Kennedy's three-year presidency, cut short by an assassin's bullets. "I had the pleasure of being in his company about three times and I was more impressed each time.

"I think if not for what happened in Dallas, he would have been re-elected and he would have had served two great terms, and I would have enjoyed every bit of it."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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