A touch of Camelot in Kansas: Remembering the night John F. Kennedy came to Johnson County

11/06/2013 9:19 AM

11/06/2013 9:19 AM

Camelot came to Kansas on Oct. 22, 1960.

That’s when John F. Kennedy spent perhaps an hour in Prairie Village.

Next week a group of Kennedy admirers will present a reasonable facsimile of that night’s excitement when it hosts “An Evening with Jack Kennedy” at Shawnee Mission East High School.

While the event, sponsored by the Johnson County Democratic Party, observes the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s Nov. 22, 1963, assassination, it more literally commemorates the brief historical moment when the candidate made Prairie Village the last stop of a long presidential campaign day.

Area actor Peter Leondedis will portray Kennedy and deliver the same speech that the candidate made that night. The Shawnee Mission East Chamber Choir will sing, and a panel discussion will follow featuring several area residents who witnessed Kennedy’s visit.

“We see this as a community commemoration of the visit of a celebrated American president,” said event organizer Charles Schollenberger, longtime Prairie Village resident.

Kennedy’s appearance in Prairie Village represented the first time a presidential candidate campaigned in Johnson County, according to The Kansas City Star, since Franklin Roosevelt stopped in Olathe in 1936 on his way to defeating Kansas governor and Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon.

During his visit to Shawnee Mission East, Kennedy logically might have spoken in the school’s auditorium. That space, however, already was filled by East students enjoying their annual homecoming dance.

So Kennedy spoke in the cafeteria.

One witness was a 9-year-old-girl who had planned to spend her Saturday night with her babysitter — at least until her father called and told her to put on her Sunday school dress.

Another was the 8-year-old son of a Johnson County labor leader. He ended up getting close enough to the candidate to smell his after-shave.

The third was the operator of an Overland Park retail fabric store.

After a customer had promised him access to Kennedy’s appearance, he and his family waited long enough at a back door that they almost left. But he finally got his family in and later walked away with the candidate’s autograph — tripping over a small step in the process.

A fourth witness — a Prairie Village mother of three then volunteering as a Democratic Party committeewoman — still remembers the moment when everyone in the cafeteria knew that Kennedy was inside the school.

“Nobody had announced that he was there, and suddenly all of us were on our feet,” said Shirley McKay, who years later served as Johnson County Democratic Party chairwoman and today is a Reece Nichols real estate agent.

“I always thought that was amazing. We could just feel his presence.”

The event was a dinner to raise money for the re-election campaign of U.S. Rep. Newell George, a Kansas City, Kan., lawyer who represented the 2nd Kansas congressional district.

But it was also an opportunity to allow Kennedy to make a timely play for Kansas City area voters just 17 days before the Nov. 8 election and one day after Kennedy’s fourth and final televised presidential debate with Republican Party presidential nominee Richard Nixon.

By mid-October, Kennedy had built a 51 percent to 45 percent lead in Gallup polls. On Oct. 20, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Jim Farley reported to Kennedy in a memo that “the situation looks marvelous” and predicted that Kennedy would not lose many states.

On Saturday, Oct. 22, Kennedy spoke in St. Louis, Joplin and Wichita before heading to the Kansas City area in his Convair campaign aircraft.

The plane made a late-afternoon landing at Richards-Gebaur air base near Grandview.

Kennedy first spoke at Truman Corners Shopping Center, built in part on land purchased from the Truman family. “Mr. Nixon recently dismissed me as ‘just another Truman,’” Kennedy told around 10,000 spectators.

“I was flattered.”

From there another estimated 10,000 people lined Kennedy’s motorcade route north on U.S. 71, with crowds swelling at several intersections, among them 75th Street and Prospect Avenue, Gregory Boulevard and Prospect Avenue, and 63rd Street and the Paseo.

A band joined the motorcade at Truman Road and led it to the Hotel Muehlebach, where thousands more were standing outside when Kennedy arrived at 7:45 p.m.

Among those waiting inside the hotel were still more admirers and — in another part of the Muehlebach — four Republican Party elders operating a “Truth Squad” table. Among them was U.S. Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, the father and grandfather of future presidents.

From the Muehlebach, Kennedy went to Municipal Auditorium where close to 9,000 people waited, along with about 3,000 more milling outside along 13th Street. The rally began at 8:30 p.m. with several speakers warming up the crowd, among them former President Harry Truman.

Inside the auditorium, Kennedy pronounced America’s international prestige at an “all-time low” and urged a renewed emphasis on disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union. He cited statistics on mining and steel production to portray a sluggish economy.

But the real news of Kennedy’s visit, according to The Star, was the reaction to Kennedy himself, which included several “scenes of wild enthusiasm and confusion.”

When Kennedy attempted to leave Municipal Auditorium, police officers had to form a wedge, plowing a path through spectators. Outside, where Kennedy spoke briefly with those standing on 13th Street, police ultimately had to “pry Kennedy loose from admirers so the motorcade could proceed on to a Johnson County rally.”

That’s where Shirley McKay, Morrie Joseph, Bruce Carter and Janet Powell Simonsen waited.


Simonsen, then 9-year-old Janet Powell, had been spending the evening with her babysitter and 4-year-old sister Dianne. Her father, Sylvester Powell, mayor of Mission and chairman of the Johnson County Democratic Party, had left earlier for Shawnee Mission East with his wife, Merle, and their son, Stephen.

Then the phone rang,

“My dad called and said, ‘He is going to be the next president and you need to be here,’” Simonsen said. “He told me to put on my Sunday school dress, and my babysitter helped me.”

A family friend drove Simonsen to Shawnee Mission East, where about 700 people were eating turkey dinners for which they had paid $10 apiece.

Speakers at the banquet included Frank Theis, an Arkansas City lawyer and running for a U.S. Senate seat, and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Georgia Neese Gray of Kansas, then a Democratic national committeewoman.

“We’re going to carry the state for Jack Kennedy,” Gray told the crowd.

Outside, standing on a patio and straining to see through plate glass windows, were another 1,200 spectators.

Inside those windows was 8-year-old Bruce Carter.

“I was wondering why I had been told to put on my Sunday clothes on a Saturday night,” Carter said.

Carter knew who Kennedy was. His father, Victor, an electrical utility lineman and leader with a local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, was enough of a Kennedy fan that he had read “Profiles in Courage” out loud to him.

“My dad was in the IBEW and my Uncle Joe was in the painters’ union in Kansas City,” said Carter. “They were both very excited about Kennedy — and Uncle Joe didn’t get too excited about anything.”

Kennedy, as described by McKay, entered the cafeteria with no announcement. Among those accompanying him were U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington and U.S. Rep. Richard Bolling, both of Missouri. After Kennedy arrived, security officers allowed some of those standing outside to walk in and line the cafeteria walls.

Meanwhile, at a back door waited Morrie Joseph, his wife and two children.

“We were there kind of by accident,” said Joseph, today the retired operator of Joseph’s Fabrics in downtown Overland Park.

“One of my customers was a Democratic Party committeewoman. She asked one day when she was in the store if I was going to the Kennedy speech. I told her I didn’t have a ticket.

“She said, ‘Well, you might come to the back door and, if I think about it, I will come out and meet you.’”

Accordingly, Joseph and his family stationed themselves at the appointed back door. And waited.

“The committeewoman wasn’t there,” Joseph said.

“We were just about to leave when she came darting out the door, grabbed my two kids by the hands and took us in. The event had already started. We sat down, and just a few minutes after that John Kennedy began to give his speech.”

U.S. Rep. George introduced Kennedy.

The candidate urged support for George, Theis and incumbent Kansas Gov. George Docking, then seeking a third term.

He briefly mentioned the previous evening’s presidential debate, saying that “Mr. Nixon and I had our strange interlude.”

He described that day’s visits to St. Louis, Joplin, Wichita, Kansas City and “now Johnson County,” adding “I was particularly anxious to come here.

“Mr. Nixon submitted a list, or his intimate advisers did, to some magazine this week, which gave his sure states. He gave us Massachusetts, I think, and Rhode Island. He named a good deal of the United States and among the states that he claimed was Kansas.

“My impression has been that this election was not until November 8 and Kansas did not make up its judgment until then. My hope is that Kansas will vote Democratic as it did in 1936.”

Much of Kennedy’s Shawnee Mission East address concerned international relations.

He cited the long-term importance of foreign aid for Latin America and a greater American presence in Africa. He mentioned the opportunities represented by space exploration. He closed by mentioning Nixon’s frequent references to his eight years of experience as vice president under President Dwight Eisenhower and then noted the dismissal that week of longtime New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel.

“Experience perhaps does not count,” said Kennedy.

The spectators stood to applaud.

“We were invited to get his autograph, so I lined up for that,” said Joseph.

“All I had with me was a store check, and fortunately it was blank. I gave it to him and he signed the back of it.

“I was so enthralled looking at his signature that I didn’t notice that he standing on a little raised dais, about six inches off the floor. So I stumbled.”

Joseph held on to the check. His son-in-law has it today.

Kennedy briefly worked the crowd.

“I remember that my father and my Uncle Joe got to shake Kennedy’s hand, and they were thrilled,” Carter said.

“He shook my uncle’s hand first and then my dad’s. I was standing between them and a little behind them, but I was close enough to get a really good look. I remember being impressed by how personable Kennedy seemed to be. He was dressed like a wealthy man but he did not come across that way.

“I later learned this was called ‘charisma.’”

Carter not only got a good look at the candidate, but a good whiff as well.

“It was the first time that I realized that there was some other men’s after-shave that wasn’t Old Spice,” Carter said, referring to his father’s brand.

“I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t Old Spice. I’m sure it was something pretty expensive.”

Carter would go on to a 40-year public school teaching career, 27 years of which were with the Shawnee Mission School District. Today he is an associate professor of education at McPherson College in McPherson, Kan.

Kennedy eventually left the cafeteria, and Morrie Joseph and his family followed.

“When we got out to wait for the presidential party to leave, there were cars lined up for a couple of blocks along 75th Street,” Joseph said. “And when his car pulled out, there were people getting out of their cars and applauding.”

From Shawnee Mission East, Kennedy’s car headed back to Richards-Gebaur air base, where at 10:56 p.m. his plane took off, headed for Green Bay, Wis.


Kennedy’s visit to Prairie Village visit almost didn’t happen, according to The Star.

After the candidate spoke at the Municipal Auditorium rally in downtown Kansas City, some campaign aides began glancing at their watches. It may have been close to 9:30 p.m.

“Unknown to the Johnson County faithful, there was some discussion among the Kennedy party about whether to cancel the Johnson County appearance in an attempt to get back on schedule,” The Star reported on Sunday, Oct. 23, 1960.

“It was understood that Rep. Newell George, with Kennedy at the auditorium and set to accompany him to Shawnee Mission East, protested strongly until Kennedy’s aides relented and the motorcade set out for Johnson County.”

Despite Kennedy’s urgings at the Shawnee Mission East banquet, he didn’t carry Kansas.

Richard Nixon did, with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Nor did Kennedy carry Johnson County. Nixon received 43,026 votes, almost twice as many as the 21,914 Kennedy got.

In fact, all the candidates championed by Kennedy in the Shawnee Mission East cafeteria lost their elections.

George lost his re-election bid to Republican Robert Ellsworth, a Lawrence lawyer.

Docking lost his attempt for a third term as governor, losing to Republican John Anderson Jr., an Olathe area native.

Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Andrew Schoeppel of Wichita defeated Theis.

In a close vote, Kennedy carried Missouri with 50.26 percent of the vote.

Nationwide, Kennedy narrowly prevailed with 49.72 percent of the vote compared to Nixon’s 49.55 percent. He won 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219.

Today, Kennedy’s 1960 visit to Shawnee Mission East remains a fond memory for Simonsen and her family.

Occasionally, some cultural details have gotten lost in translation. Before she graduated from Shawnee Mission East in 2005, Simonsen’s daughter Sally served on the school’s yearbook staff.

One day she spent some time paging through some old yearbooks from the 1960s.

“When my daughter got home she said, ‘Mom, there’s a picture of someone who looks like Grandma wearing this fur thing with the president,’” Simonsen said.

“I told her that fur thing was a mink stole.”

But that’s not the best family story about President John Kennedy

The summer following Kennedy’s October 1960 visit to Shawnee Mission East, Sylvester Powell took his family to Washington, D.C.

U.S. Rep. James Floyd Breeding, Democrat of southwest Kansas, arranged for the Powell family to take an after-hours tour of the White House’s west wing.

“We never dreamed that we would meet the president,” said Simonsen.

“But, just in case, my father brought a photograph that had been taken with him and Kennedy when Kennedy, as a senator, had attended a dinner in Topeka. My brother, Stephen, had a yearbook with Kennedy’s picture in it taken while he was visiting Shawnee Mission East.”

Breeding and his wife joined the Powell family on the tour.

“The aide who was taking us around was showing us the Cabinet room when, all of a sudden, he said ‘Good evening, Mr. President.’”

As if on cue, President Kennedy appeared and greeted the Powell family.

The story doesn’t end there.

“Then the president took us into the Oval Office,” Simonsen said. “Mom, Dad, all five of us. He signed my dad’s photograph, my brother’s yearbook, my autograph book and my sister’s autograph book.”

Even today, the events of Nov. 22, 1963, are almost too painful for Simonsen to discuss. Her father, she said, often spoke of Kennedy and the promise he believed the president represented.

“We always wondered what might have been.”

LIVING HISTORY

“An Evening with Jack Kennedy” begins at 6 p.m. Nov. 16 in the auditorium at Shawnee Mission East High School, 7500 Mission Road, Prairie Village.

The Shawnee Mission East Chamber Choir will perform. Area actor Peter Leondedis, portraying Kennedy, will deliver the same remarks made by U.S. Sen. John Kennedy at the school on Oct. 22, 1960. A panel discussion will follow, and approximately a dozen photographs taken during Kennedy’s visit and recently acquired by the high school will be exhibited for the first time.

While the Johnson County Democratic Party is the event’s lead sponsor, the celebration is a nonpartisan event directed by a bipartisan steering committee, said Charles Schollenberger, lead organizer. Other sponsors, Schollenberger said, include area banks, restaurants, grocery stores and private citizens.

Schollenberger has received permission to use the photographs for the event, said John McKinney, Shawnee Mission East High School principal.

“We are very proud that Sen. Kennedy was here and supportive of Charles’ efforts,” said McKinney.

The event is free.

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