Teresa Leonard’s Past Times feature in the N&O today took me back to a night in 1960 when, as an 11-year-old, I shook John F. Kennedy’s hand.
The N&O reported on September 18, 1960:
“A swarm of wet, cheering citizens almost mobbed Jack Kennedy in their enthusiasm as he entered Raleigh Saturday.
“It happened at the Glenwood Shopping Center at the edge of the city as the Kennedy caravan from Raleigh-Durham Airport stopped for the candidate to change from a closed sedan to an open car.”
That night, my mother packed my two younger brothers and me into the car and drove us to Glenwood Village, just five minutes away.
Somehow, she squeezed us up to where Kennedy was to change cars.
The N&O story went on:
“For several minutes, the crowd pressed so tightly around the closed car carrying Kennedy that he was unable to get out.
“When he did, wearing his ever-present smile, a great whoop went up from the people pressing tightly around him. Governor Hodges and Terry Sanford, the Democrats’ candidate for the State’s next Governor, were squeezed up against the side of the car with Kennedy.
“With the door slightly ajar, Kennedy stood and waved. The crowd roared again. Hands pressed from all sides, grasping the hand of the presidential candidate.
“Kennedy changed from the closed sedan to an open convertible at the Glenwood Village stop, but it took him almost 10 minutes to make the switch.
“Police, local officials, and top State party leaders were unable to help the cornered candidate.
“Finally, Raleigh Police Chief Tom Davis, driving a white Ford Thunderbird with the top down, moved his car up next to the vehicle carrying Kennedy.
“Davis literally had to ease the cheering crowd out of the way with the vehicle.
“When the Thunderbird got alongside the Kennedy car, the man seeking the presidency vaulted the side of the new vehicle.
“With the candidate perched on the back seat of the Thunderbird, the Kennedy caravan started moving inch by inch away from the crowd that had come to see him. But not before many more hands grappled with his or slapped him on the back or merely reached out to touch.”
Our hands were among those reaching out. Kennedy shook my hand and my mother’s. She was carrying my brother Fred, who was just two. Kennedy pointed at him: “There’s a little one.”
From there, the motorcade took Kennedy to the Governors Mansion. Later he spoke at Reynolds Coliseum.
Three years later, he was riding in another convertible in Dallas.
Sixteen years later, I went to work for a candidate for Governor who in 1960 had organized college students for Kennedy and Sanford. That was Jim Hunt.
Some years after that, I worked for Senator Sanford.
Today, Kennedy is sometimes dismissed as a lightweight with a thin record and an unsavory personal life.
But his youth, energy and idealism were refreshing and uplifting at a time when politics and politicians seemed old, stuck and stodgy.
You can’t dismiss the impact he had on those of us he inspired to get involved in politics. He made us believe we could make a difference for our country.
We still believe it.