Tom Eblen: Remembering Kennedy's visit to the University of Kentucky

Herald-Leader columnistNovember 20, 2013 

Many people my age and older can remember where they were when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

A former colleague in Atlanta has the most impressive story of anyone I know: he was standing with his elementary school class along the parade route in Dallas.

I was 5 years old that day, with my mother at a church craft show. I don't remember it.

But I do have a memory from three years earlier, or at least I think I do. I have never been sure if it is an actual memory or one conjured up from hearing my parents tell me many times over the years that I saw John F. Kennedy in Lexington.

It was Oct. 8, 1960. Kennedy was a 43-year-old senator from Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee a month away from defeating Richard Nixon in the closest presidential election in 44 years.

Kennedy was on a campaign swing through Kentucky. He was picked up at Blue Grass Airport by Harry B. Miller Jr., a Lexington lawyer who died last week at age 89.

Kennedy waved to people as he rode down Main Street in an open-top convertible, seated beside Gov. Bert Combs. The car took them to the University of Kentucky campus, where they joined other prominent Democrats on an impromptu stage — a flatbed truck parked by the Administration Building.

I lived a block from campus, in an old house on Harrison Avenue — now South Martin Luther King Boulevard — where UK is now building a massive dormitory complex. My mother pushed me over in a stroller and we met my father, who hoisted me up on his shoulders so I could watch Kennedy's speech.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library has a transcript of that speech, which now seems rather ordinary and written to impress a Kentucky crowd.

Kennedy got applause by praising the tobacco support program and Lexington's favorite son, Henry Clay. (He mistakenly referred to Clay as a Transylvania College graduate. Clay was a trustee and law professor there, but not a student.)

Kennedy then accused the Eisenhower Administration, in which his opponent was vice president, of being asleep at the wheel during "a time of danger" when the world was changing and the Cold War was heating up.

"I am not pleased to see countries around the world, when asked who will be first, say the Soviet Union in outer space, in science, in military power, in the next 10 years," he said. Kennedy then delivered a dose of the "New Frontier" challenge that would inspire a generation of idealistic young Americans.

"No college graduate can go out from any college today without being a man of his nation and a man of his time; without pursuing in his own life, not only his private interest, but the welfare of his country," Kennedy said.

It was still a man's world in 1960.

My mother, Marion Eblen, remembers it as a good speech. She was even more impressed by Kennedy's looks — especially when his car passed within a few feet of us as he left campus.

"He was as handsome as any movie star," she said.

Phil Patton was 12 years older than me, and his memories of that day are vivid. His older brother had brought him to Lexington to see Kennedy, and after attending the parade down Main Street they rushed to UK to hear his speech.

"I was such a political junkie, even at age 14, that I had a big poster of Kennedy on my bedroom door," said Patton, now 67 and a circuit court judge in Glasgow. He got to shake Kennedy's hand and remembers him as tan, handsome and charming.

Kennedy's charm was put to the test later that day, when he made another campaign speech in Bowling Green.

The mayor presented Kennedy with a gift that only a Southerner could appreciate: a country ham. Like any well-aged ham, it was covered with green mold. Kennedy winced, but quickly recovered.

"It took a brave man to eat the first oyster," the candidate said with his famous Yankee accent. "I'm going to take your word for this. If you say it's good, I'll eat it."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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