Author’s note: As promised more than a year ago when I began this series, the stories have progressed beyond the memories and stories of my Mother, Mabel, and are now the product of my own experiences. Thus, the Mabel files now becomes the Griffith Files and come in a first person perspective. I hope readers continue to find them interesting.
When my Mother, Mabel Griffith, woke me for school from a sound sleep on September 27, 1962 I could tell, even in an seven-year-old’s early morning grogginess, that there was something exciting afoot. Even my usually stoic blind grandmother, Lizzie Minns, was uncharacteristically chipper as she made up my bed and asked me what I wanted for breakfast.
“Today’s a big day, Gerry,” Mom said handing me a stack of clothes she picked out for me to wear. “President Kennedy is coming to town and we are going to go see him. Terry (my big brother) will be in the band that will be playing for him. Isn’t that exciting?”
I was a third grader at Kruger Street School and had a different set of priorities at that point.
“Do I get out of school?” I asked in my sleepy voice.
“No honey, He’s coming in the evening,” she answered. “We can go after school and see him drive by in his parade of official cars—what do you call it?—a motorcade?”
Kennedy was a big deal in our family. A big poster of him, protected by plastic wrap, hung in the upstairs hallway of our house right outside my room. During the election of 1960, my Mom was an official Democratic Party driver who transported voters to the polls on election day in our family car. I remembered how ridiculous our little Rambler looked. It had been festooned with Kennedy campaign bumper stickers, banners and even a yard sign or two with the help of big thick duct tape. It looked like the political version of today’s NASCAR racecar. I also remembered that Mom had been on hand at the McLure Hotel in downtown Wheeling when candidate Kennedy paid the Friendly City a quick campaign visit with his wife, Jackie. Mabel talked about shaking hands with the young Massachusetts Senator for the rest of her life.
There was also the fact that Grandma’s nephew, Matthew Reese, was on Kennedy’s staff after having served with distinction in the 1960 Democratic Primary tussle between Kennedy and Senator Hubert Humphrey. Kennedy’s West Virginia victory, observed carefully by the whole country via television news, was widely seen as putting Kennedy over the top for the nomination.
“Okay,” I responded with a yawn. “Can I have bologna in my lunch today?”
As I sat sleepily at the kitchen table and stirred my bowl of Rice Krispies, more than 350 miles away, President Kennedy was beginning his day with a coffee for Democratic Congressmen at the White House. He followed that with a ceremony to present a citation for outstanding work to H.J. Anslinger the former Commissioner of Narcotics. He moved on from there to the State Department were he addressed the White House Conference on Narcotic and Drug Abuse.
By 11:30 a.m., about the time I was diving into the contents of my sack lunch, the President was meeting with Prince Mohammad Naim the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan. Next, he met with the outgoing Ambassador of Columbia who was paying a farewell call.
By the time I was getting my math lesson, the President was signing HR 12391, the Farm Bill. He followed that with a meeting with members of the National Advisory Committee on Manpower and Development.
When I was partaking of our afternoon recess in the schoolyard, President Kennedy was huddling with General Lyman Lemnitzer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
When I was starting to watch the big classroom clock in anticipation of an afternoon recess, the President was meeting with South Carolina Governor and future U.S. Senator Ernest Hollings.
When I was enduring the final lesson of the day, President Kennedy was meeting with his good friend and chief executive officer of the Washington Post, Philp Graham, who would commit suicide one year later.
As a busy third grader, I had forgotten all about the Kennedy appearance by the time I walked home from school that day. The President had boarded his private plane and was already on the way to Wheeling when I walked in the back door of our Elm Grove home and into the warm kitchen that always smelled of baked bread. I was swept up into a wave of activity that reminded me of the big occasion.
“Terry,” Mom yelled up the steps to my brother who was in the room we shared. “Make sure you put some polish on those white bucks (the white shoes Pat Boone made famous and that the Triadelphia High School Band adopted as their official footwear). And, don’t forget your uniform hat this time.”
“Gerry,” she told me over her shoulder. “Grandma made macaroni and cheese for supper and we have to eat early tonight. Go sit down and she will get it for you.”
By then, President Kennedy’s prop engine airplane was somewhere over southwestern Pennsylvania.
After the quick dinner, Grandma, wearing her heavy black coat with a sparkly pin on the lapel, grabbed my arm and I led her out to the car where we took our usual spots in the back seat of the Rambler. Terry climbed in the front seat and we were off to Triadelphia High School where Terry and the rest of the band would be bussed over to Wheeling Island Stadium where they would join bands from Wheeling High School and Central High School to play “Hail to the Chief” before the big political speeches.
At about the time we dropped Terry off, President Kennedy’s aircraft touched down at the Wheeling Ohio County Airport and he and his entourage got in a series of black vehicles. Kennedy was in a big Lincoln convertible.
My Mom had thought long and hard about where to park to get the best view of the President and his motorcade and determined that somewhere in North Wheeling would work well. She loved a good parallel parking challenge and found one on the northbound side of Main Street in front of a little brick building that was home to a wholesale restaurant equipment business. We waited inside the car in anticipation of the President’ arrival until we saw the flashing red lights of the motorcycle police who led the way for the Presidential motorcade.
Grandma chose to remain in the backseat. Mom and I scrambled out and stood at the rear bumper of the Rambler and became a part of a growing number of spectators gathered to see the President. There were hundreds of other people along this part of the route. The roar of the motorcycles sounded even louder than usual as they echoed in the little canyon between the old North Wheeling buildings. You could see a wave of flashbulbs going off on both sides of the street parallel to the President’s car as the people of Wheeling took pictures with their little cameras. Both the car and the flash wave were approaching us in a slow but steady pace.
Then, I saw him, or at least part of him. The roar of the motorcycles, the distraction of the flashbulbs, the cheering of the crowd and the jostling I received by the adults around me seemed to make the opportunity to see Kennedy go by in a split second. All I really remember is seeing the back of a man with reddish hair in a dark blue suit waving to the crowd on the opposite side of the street.
My Mom was determined to get his attention so he would turn around and her boy could see the President. She waved frantically and yelled at the top of her voice, “Hey Jack.”
I was excited over what little I saw of President Kennedy, but I was more impressed with the incorrect but understandable conclusion I reached that my mother was on a first name basis with the President of the United States! She set me straight on that—a few years later.
But, we weren’t done yet. We scrambled into the car and somehow, Mom got us turned around and across the Fort Henry Bridge where we snaked our way down to the Wheeling Island Stadium. I don’t remember where we parked or the walk into the stadium. I do remember standing in the south end zone and trying to get a glimpse of Kennedy and the other politicians who stood and sat on a platform all the way down in the north end zone. By the time we got there, Kennedy was already talking.
Of course, I had absolutely no idea what anybody was talking about. I learned later that Kennedy and his speech were intended to urge voters to reelect a man named Cleveland Bailey to the U.S. House of Representatives. As it turned out, Bailey lost to Arch Moore.
I couldn’t see much at that stadium rally, but I was aware that this was a special night in Wheeling. I had seen my first president, or at least the back of his head and then again at a distance that made him appear like a little speck in the distance. I had thrilled at the roar of the motorcycles and the cheers of the crowd on the streets and in this stadium where I would also see trapeze artists and animal trainers of the Shrine Circus and march in my own high school band during football games. And, I had experienced my first glimpse of the political world where I would someday spend a good part of my own career.
One month later, the young President would face the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fourteen months later, he would be dead.
To see President Kennedy’s schedule for September 27, 1962, visit http://www.historycentral.com/JFK/Calendar/September1962.html.
To read the speech that President Kennedy delivered that day in Wheeling, visit https://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKPOF-040-024.aspx.