Kentuckians Share Memories of Kennedy Visit, 1963 Assassination

Nov 21, 2013

Gerald Givens displays the two photos he took during John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign appearance in Bowling Green.
Credit Emil Moffatt

Eighteen-year-old Gerald Givens was a member of the Butler County High School Band in 1960 when then-Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy made a campaign stop in downtown Bowling Green.

“We were in front of his car, so when I got through with the parade I grabbed my camera and ran back up the street so I could get a good picture of him, which I did,” said Givens.  “After that, we just disbanded, got on the buses and went back to Morgantown at that time.”

Givens captured a picture of the future president, riding in a red car with a Kennedy/Johnson sign strapped to the side.

“I was 18 years old and politics and all that didn’t register a whole lot.  But I knew it was a big event because the streets were packed up one side and down the other,” said Givens.

Givens’ memories are just some of those collected in recent months by Jonathan Jeffrey, the coordinator of manuscripts and folk life archives at Western Kentucky University.

The JFK Memory Project is designed to capture recollections of President Kennedy from those in the area.  Part of Jeffrey’s research looked into Kennedy’s campaign trip to Bowling Green on October 8, 1960, an appearance that Jeffrey said lasted just 2 ½ hours and included a speech in front of City Hall and lunch at the Kentucky Colonel Motel.

Jeffrey recounted a story he collected from one appearance organizer, commonwealth’s attorney Morris Lowe.

“When they were bringing the motorcade from the Kentucky Colonel Motel back to the airport, they came by the municipal golf course, which is today the Covington Woods Golf Course,” said Jeffrey.  “He [Lowe] said there were, as he put it, an unusual number of women playing golf that day.  He said many of them just threw down their irons and raced over to the car and one woman actually jumped into the car with the president.”

Jeffrey heard from several people who said they didn’t vote for Kennedy and didn’t necessarily agree with him politically, but they saw a different side of him that October day in Bowling Green.

“They had met him, some of them had shaken his hand. He’d smiled at them or called out their name.  And so, yeah, I think there was a tender association with him,” he said.

Then and Now: A photo from the WKU Libraries Collection of John F. Kennedy's 1960 appearance in front of Bowling Green City Hall.
Credit Emil Moffatt

Many told Jeffrey that they were struck by Kennedy’s New England accent, a foreign sound to a Kentucky audience at the dawn of the 1960s.

“In the planning for his visit, there was a lot of discussion of whether they should send candidate Kennedy or vice presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson because he would probably resonate better with local people – you know – having a Southern accent and speaking slower and things like that," said Jeffrey.

But Kennedy decided he would come to Kentucky.  He wound up losing the state by seven points to Richard Nixon, but, of course, won the White House. During his presidency, Kennedy wouldn’t forget Kentucky as he welcomed the Central Kentucky Youth Symphony Orchestra to the South Lawn at the White House on April 22, 1963.

“We’re glad to have the members of this symphony from Central Kentucky who have represented the cream of musical talent who represent a series of eliminations which have brought them here to the White House,” said Kennedy in recorded remarks preserved by the JFK Library. “All in all, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a very happy occasion for me to tell you that we’re glad to have you and that Hail to the Chief was played with great distinction, and to wish you many more years of musical success.”

Exactly seven months later Kennedy would travel to Dallas.  

By then,  Givens was 21 years old, serving in the Navy and stationed at Milton, Florida. 

“We were having an inspection that day by an admiral that was going to fly in.  He got off the plane and walked to the podium, but never got up on the podium,” said Givens.  “The captain of our squadron got to the podium and said what had happened, that the President of the United States had been assassinated. So the admiral never did speak to us.  He got back into his plane and left.”

Givens says confusion followed

“We didn’t know – nobody knew – what kind of assassination it was.  So, we were ready to fly away or go wherever they told us to go,” he said.

A few days later, they were told to stand down.  And just like the rest of the country, he said he watched the events unfold on television, like none had before.

The WKU JFK Memory Project will continue to accept remembrances of John F. Kennedy through President's Day 2014.