Rosemary Laughlin/Voices | Present at the beginning: Meeting JFK

Rosemary Laughlin/Voices | Present at the beginning: Meeting JFK

History of the month calendars will note President John F. Kennedy's birth on May 29, 1917.

In January 1960, I was too young to vote. The qualification change from 21 to 18 came in 1971.

However, I was from a politically aware family, and one thing was clear: We wanted Sen. John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts to be the Democratic candidate in the fall.

Kennedy had given the nomination speech of Adlai Stevenson at the 1956 convention. He had been a contender for the vice presidency but lost it to Estes Kefauver.

My father was the local chairman of his railway clerks labor union in Omaha, Neb. He had followed the three-year investigation by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management. JFK was on that committee and had sponsored a bipartisan reform bill called Kennedy-Ives. It had been toughened and passed as the Griffin-Landrum Act late in 1959.

Basically, it required public disclosure of union finances and conflicts of interest; it prohibited loans by employers or unions to union officers; it mandated four-year elections and secret ballots.

JFK's active participation increased his legislative seriousness on the national level. He was then in his early 40s and perceived as a lightweight, especially next to very active senators like Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey.

He was also increasingly attractive with his good looks, Boston speech, self-deprecating humor and war heroism in the South Pacific. His Catholic religion turned some vociferously against him but also created underdog sympathy.

On Jan. 2, 1960, Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency. He entered state primaries where delegates were bound to the winner for at least one ballot. These included Nebraska, which he declared important for his concerns about the Midwest.

On Jan. 21, he flew to Omaha to announce his Nebraska entry to the press.

The Young Democrats at Duchesne College for Women, which I attended, got notice of it and quickly mobilized to greet him at the airport before he headed to the Sheraton-Fontanelle Hotel downtown.

It was a bitterly cold, blustery day. The heavy gray sky promised a blizzard. JFK was to arrive on his small plane, The Caroline, at 3 p.m. The flight was delayed. Wind-whipped sleet slashed us on the tarmac as we finally dashed out two hours later. Our large WELCOME poster became a sail rudely torn from us and smashed against the fence.

Despite chattering teeth, we managed to belt out the college welcome song, "How do you do, Sen. Kennedy, how d'ya do!/ Is there anything we can do for you?" JFK paused, smiled and listened before being hustled off by an aide.

I dropped the girls in my car at the hotel entrance and hunted a parking spot. I then entered an empty lobby outside the room where noise indicated the press had gathered.

Suddenly, Sen. Kennedy walked in alone — as if he had come just to greet me. I was astounded. Only the two of us were in that lobby. I was aware of my utter speechlessness. He rescued me.

"Didn't I see you at the airport?" he said.

My creative response: "Sen. Kennedy! I wish you all the luck in the world in your campaign!"

He shook my hand. He moved into the conference room. He complimented Nebraska Democrats as astute supporters who wanted the best for Midwest labor and agriculture. He challenged Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Stuart Symington of Missouri to compete.

When he finished, Duchesne students had gathered at the door, holding up portrait posters of him with Jackie and Caroline. "Hold it!" a photographer said. His flash bulb popped as JFK paused and posed. Then he was gone into the dark cold, ready for the next leg of his schedule.

We were ready for recounting our experience. We were now expert witnesses to JFK's charismatic presence — all the way to the magic of his inaugural address on another cold, snowy January day in 1961.

The Omaha World-Herald reported that Kennedy was greeted at the airport by local political operatives and cheering "teen-agers." Hmph. Indeed.

Did JFK win the Nebraska primary? Yes. There were few registered Democrats in the state, and he won 82 percent of them.

The West Virginia primary was held the same day, May 10; his surprise win there among Protestants and coal miners was a major propellant to his continuing run — through the debates with Nixon and close-run election victory.

Rosemary Laughlin is a writer and retired English reacher from University High School.

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