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Vignettes from President Kennedy's stop in Duluth

Portable phone Pat O'Hara worked for Northwestern Bell Telephone Company and was charged with bringing remote phone capabilities to the airport in case anyone getting off the presidential plane needed to make a phone call. The equipment filled "h...

Weekly Reader
Bob Dudy of Boise, Idaho, was a student at Cobb Elementary off Woodland Avenue and has saved this commemorative copy of the Weekly Reader for 50 years.

Portable phone

Pat O'Hara worked for Northwestern Bell Telephone Company and was charged with bringing remote phone capabilities to the airport in case anyone getting off the presidential plane needed to make a phone call.

The equipment filled "half the trunk" of his car.

When the plane came in and the passengers disembarked, "a big guy comes over" and asks to use the phone, O'Hara said. The man handed him a Havana cigar and then picked up the receiver.

It turned out it was NBC newsman Sander Vanocur, a prominent political reporter who was one of the panelists for the first Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960.

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"Here I had him in the back seat of my car," O'Hara said.

Vanocur was the only caller that day.

A teen comes around

Carol O'Day followed the election of 1960 very closely and said she cried herself to sleep on Election Night in fear of her Republican parents' nightmare coming true: Kennedy as president.

But by the time she was 14 and had read about Kennedy in school, she began to warm to him; especially for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in and his trip to Duluth to talk about conservation and the environment.

"I had been reading Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' and I was now concerned about DDT and the environment," she said. "By then I was in love with him, as only a 14-year-old can be. I just absolutely had to see him."

She begged her dad, Bob Ekstrom, to drive her downtown to the Hotel Duluth.

"But he was still a Republican ... so I took the bus downtown on my own."

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She was happy to find a spot near the hotel because she feared the drizzle would make it hard to see Kennedy inside the enclosed car.

"Once he got to the hotel, he would still have to get out of the car," she said. "He got out and right at that moment, his gorgeous red hair was caught in a bit of wind. 'He's so c-u-u-u-te!' I screamed above the crowd in all my 14-year-old zeal. ... He turned, smiled and waved, looking our way -- looking right at me."

She walked home and then breathlessly began to tell her story of seeing JFK. She was soon upstaged by her sister, who told her she had actually shaken his hand.

It seems Dad had a change of heart after Carol left and took her sister and brother downtown. He somehow wrangled his way into the Hotel Duluth.

"While I was outside in the cold and damp ... my dad, Lorrie and Rick were inside in an informal receiving line, where Kennedy was randomly shaking hands, including my dad's."

There was a picture of the handshake in the next day's paper, she said, with her brother and sister visible as well.

Carol got up to UMD to see Kennedy's speech. She saved her ticket. She also took notes and used them in a term paper she wrote for her ninth-grade civics class at Woodland Junior High.

"I got an A on it."

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Wrong bus

Susan Jestus was a Duluth Central senior and part of its band that played downtown for Kennedy.

She recalled a classmate who was not wearing her glasses as she made her way to get on a bus for downtown.

"When a bus stopped for a red light in Duluth Heights, she approached the bus knocking. The bus driver opened the door and she was in. She asked where to put her money. The bus driver's response was: 'This is a presidential press bus.' Her response was: 'Oh, it is not.' She found a seat and sat down, riding all the way to Hotel Duluth."

"When the bus emptied she found herself within arm's length of President Kennedy. Nobody approached her or questioned her. She just kept walking."

'He is so tan'

Colleen McDonald was 13 when she watched Air Force One touch down in Duluth.

"When the door opened and he finally came out and paused to wave to all the people, my first thought was: He is so tan."

Her family drove down Central Entrance and got a spot near where the First United Methodist Church (Coppertop) sits today.

"Just as he got to where I was standing, he turned and waved at me."

Her aunt, Joyce McDonald, and grandmother, Essie McDonald, had an in at the Hotel Duluth. Essie's brother, Art Nelson, contacted U.S. Rep. John Blatnik and the two women were able to meet Kennedy at the hotel. He gave Joyce an autograph and she received a PT109 pin, a symbol of Kennedy's Navy service in World War II.

"Needless to say, this was a visit our family never forgot," Colleen said.

Medium-rare steak

Laurie Turner of Superior said her father, Ed Ketola, was a cook at Hotel Duluth and was told he would be the only person handling food for the president. He had a server with him and they went up to the 14th floor and had to stay in the suite until the meal was finished.

Kennedy had a steak, medium rare, and a baked potato, Turner recalled her father saying.

Ketola had some small talk with Kennedy and got a menu signed: "To Ed. What a great meal," Kennedy wrote. Turner said her father even had a drink with the president.

That menu has since been lost, Turner said.

In the sky

Ellen Myers says she was on the playground at Cobb Elementary off Woodland Avenue when Kennedy arrived.

"Our kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Beerhalter, told us to look up. Air Force One was overhead."

Ran out of film

Pat Osterberg was a young Navy wife whose husband was assigned to a carrier in the Pacific. She and her two sons came to Duluth, her hometown, and she got medical care for them at the air base and shopped at the commissary. She found out about the president's visit when she was on base with her mom and dad on

Sept. 24. The place was full of "personnel in full combat gear and weapons. We were told the president's plane would be arriving soon."

The family went to the parking lot and when Osterberg suggested her parents go to a fence to see Kennedy get off his plane, they told her to go.

"They said they had the opportunity to shake President Truman's hand when he was in Duluth, and that I should go to the fence and take the movie camera. I did, and have some nice film of the press plane arriving. Then Air Force One came in and taxied toward the area where people were pressed up against the fence. The president came out of the plane and my hand started shaking and (the camera) ran out of film."

As Kennedy came to the fence to shake hands, she noticed he was "very tan, very thin, and very handsome. I thought it strange that no one said anything to him when shaking his hand, and when he got to me, I blurted out the only thing I could think of: 'Welcome to Minnesota, Mr. President.' He looked surprised, turned and (mine) was the last hand he shook in that line."

Ashland throng

Rick Arnold of Superior remembers ending up on the front page of a Northland newspaper in a picture of Kennedy in Ashland. The 11-year-old was bused from Ashland High School to the airport and remembers being astounded by the number of people there -- more than 12,000 -- far more than lived in Ashland at the time.

Road trip

Virginia Nelson was teaching junior high in Virginia and was determined to see the president. She and a friend packed sandwiches and drove to UMD. Because of the rain and the throngs lining the motorcade, they were among the first in line at the athletics facility now known as Romano Gymnasium. And they were among the first to get in, snatching prime seats in the balcony. They munched on their sandwiches while waiting for Kennedy.

Nelson, who is now 91, recalls being struck by how young he looked and called the UMD speech event "just very special."

Musical greetings

Mary Jo Gilbertson was 15 and part of the Cloquet High School band that welcomed President Kennedy at the Duluth airport.

Cloquet's band was the first to greet the president. The Cathedral band played at Central Entrance and Mesaba Avenue. On Superior Street, school bands had every section covered, lining up in formation at the avenues and facing the motorcade: Morgan Park at Fourth Avenue West, Denfeld at Third Avenue West, Central at Second Avenue West, East at First Avenue West, Silver Bay on Lake Avenue, Proctor at First Avenue East, and Superior State College at Second Avenue East.

Twice struck

Gordon Marshall was stationed at the Duluth Air Base with the 343rd Fighter Squadron. He met Kennedy twice on the day of his visit.

The first was a handshake along a fence at the airport after Kennedy arrived in Duluth and before he boarded a helicopter for Ashland. Marshall met him again in downtown Duluth.

"I was very proud to have met him," Marshall said, adding "everybody liked him" on the base.

He'll have a Heineken

Lawrence Yetka of Cloquet was the chairman of 8th District Democrats. For two weeks, he worked with others on planning the president's visit.

"Everything had to be laid out cold," Yetka said, and every angle covered.

Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, insisted that the president's suite at Hotel Duluth be stocked with Heineken beer. Import beer was a hard find at that time, Yetka said.

Yetka was at the airport to meet Kennedy and rode in the third car of the motorcade later that day. He recalled the president's limousine stopping on Central Entrance at Arlington Avenue to allow Kennedy to get out and greet some nuns. It was the second time Kennedy got out of the limo on Central Entrance. The other was at the former Lowell School near Basswood Avenue to shake hands with children.

Those stops were the only kink in the rigid schedule that day, Yetka said.

Before Kennedy spoke at UMD, Yetka and UMD Provost Ray Darland had a chance to speak to Kennedy for about 20 minutes, he said. It probably was the longest one-on-one encounter any local representatives had with the president that day.

Yetka remembers Kennedy being interested in details about Sen. Hubert Humphrey and U.S. Rep. John Blatnik.

"He wanted to know everything," Yetka said. "Mentally he was brilliant. He knew what was going on. He had a very charming personality."

Overhead wave

Karen Hoylo and her family moved to Duluth from western Minnesota on Labor Day in 1963. She recalls being "very pregnant" and staying at her relatives' house while her home was being finished. She was out in the yard when the Kennedy helicopter passed overhead. She waved, and that was the only event she witnessed that day.

Off the point

Tom Wallin was 10 when he rode a bus from Park Point downtown with his brother Bill and his mother.

"It was a chilly damp evening and we stood on the south side of Superior Street in the dark waiting for the president to pass by, hoping to catch a glimpse. It doesn't stand out it my memory how long we waited. We were disappointed about the weather and fearful it would mean the president's limo would have the convertible top on, and we wouldn't see him. Then he came."

"The black Lincoln convertible, with the bulletproof top on against the cold and damp, came down Fourth Avenue East, swung onto Superior Street and passed in a moment."

"I don't recall any sound. The scene in my memory has no color, just black and white. I don't recall the bus ride home. But I had just seen the president of the United States."

Lowell stop

Catherine Mattson ran as fast as she could from her job at Bridgeman's on Central Entrance to see the motorcade, only to find that she couldn't cross the street at Lowell School to get to her house. She had to take a position behind a group of Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Little Leaguers hoisting signs in front of the school.

"I was just hoping to wave and see him," she said. "Then they stopped in front of us."

Kennedy went to the south side of the street where Mattson's house was and shook hands. He then went across the street to greet the children in uniform.

According to a blog from former Duluth resident John Marden, which has photos by his father of Kennedy outside of his limo at Lowell, Kennedy went to a group holding a sign that had misspelled the president's name and kindly corrected them. Marden, who hadn't been born yet, said his father told the story about Secret Service agents looking beleaguered by Kennedy's actions and having to push some children out of the way.

That Lowell stop endeared Kennedy to the schoolchildren and when word came out that he had been shot in Dallas, school officials refused to announce the news during classes in fear that they would be crushed.

Once the motorcade passed, Mattson was excited to tell her family about her close encounter.

"We thought the world of him," she said. "He was very handsome and tan."

Then her sister told her that she actually shook hands with the president.

"I didn't know until she told me," she said.

Family memory

Rockie Lee Kavajecz of Washburn said his grandmother, Pauline Kavajecz of Port Wing, went to Ashland to see Kennedy's speech. He was 7 and lived in Biwabik.

"Grandmother's picture was taken shaking JFK's hand, which was subsequently featured in the Ashland Daily Press. ... I remember it as a very proud day for the Kavajecz family seeing grandmother's picture."

"He brought hope to those who struggled raising families in a hard but beautiful land," Kavajecz said. "JFK's visit 50 years ago still stirs powerful memories and remains an inspiration for our family through a simple handshake in a crowd."

Kavajecz said he would welcome a copy of the photo if anyone has one.

Brush with history

Rich Walkowiak of Duluth had a literal brush with fame during Kennedy's visit. While working security as a National Guard member, he expected perhaps to see the president -- but not actually have him brush past him as he cut through the security line.

Fifty years on, the brush is a very clear memory, as is the preparation the Guard did before the visit, like shining shoes.

'Handsome man'

Deena Townsend watched the motorcade with her father, Orvie, and brother, Randy.

"I smiled in surprise at his red hair. I'd only seen him in black-and-white photos. At that moment, I understood the meaning of charisma."

"I waved, he waved back. I was awestruck and honored."

In the suite

Gene Schmidt sat on Kennedy's special supportive bed at breakfast on the morning of his stay at the Hotel Duluth. He had served him a soft-boiled egg and bacon. They talked for about 15 minutes. The president eventually signed a menu for him.

"He had an amazing memory," Schmidt said. So does Schmidt, who recalled the smallest details, such as the room number of the Kennedy suite -- 1441 -- and the stocking cap he slept in.

Schmidt said he also got the room ready the day before by stocking the Heineken beer and Glenmore vodka. He recalled seeing a red phone on a table.

He said he also took away Kennedy's meal from the evening before, a half-eaten sirloin.

"I'm probably the only person who ate the other half of a president's steak," Schmidt said.

He wrote a poem about Kennedy shortly after his death, called "The President is Dead," and U.S. Rep. John Blatnik got a copy sent to former first lady Jackie Kennedy.

"She sent a thank you," he said.

Quick look

Tim Johnson was 5. His family was in the process of moving to Hermantown and he was going to kindergarten at Salem Lutheran Church, where his mother picked him up to go see the motorcade.

"We headed down Anderson Road to try to find a spot on Central Entrance to watch. It was jammed but we found a place to park and just made it to the intersection of Central Entrance as the limo went by. I caught a fleeting glimpse of the president as he passed. It was the coolest experience in a 5-year-old's world."

'He hung the moon'

Micki Szymczak was 13 and, "like most folks my age, I thought he hung the moon."

She said she considered lining up for the motorcade all day but was busy with other things. At the last minute she decided to catch it on Mesaba Avenue, running a half-mile to get there.

"I remember him leaning forward in the back seat of his limo to wave at me -- I'm sure it was just me. The lighting in the limo gave an orange glow to the backseat and he looked almost more than human to this young lady with a case of hero worship."

Direct view

Linda Mason Pace was 15. She took a bus downtown with her sister and a friend after school at Denfeld. They ended up standing directly across the street from Hotel Duluth.

"President Kennedy exited his car on the street side. We had a great view. My father, Howard Mason, was (behind) the motorcade. ... He wasn't able to find a parking space so missed seeing him. Dad turns 100 next week and we just talked about this memory."

Phone detail

Bob Alsop helped install a special telephone system at the Hotel Duluth, one that would have a secure line for presidential matters and also be able to handle the high volume of calls for members of the news media. Every sitting politician from Wisconsin and Minnesota would be at the hotel along with the 90-some people traveling with the president.

Alsop said a Secret Service agent was watching him the entire time he installed the phone in the president's suite on the 14th floor.

"Then he took it all apart," he said, to check for bugs.

Alsop recalled going back to the hotel after the visit to collect the gear and noticed that Kennedy's roomed was stripped of most of its furnishings, including bed sheets and towels. Some workers at the hotel have said many of the items from Kennedy's room were sold at auction, including one of those sheets that had Kennedy's signature.

The Duluth advance team knew that the suite needed updates. It had been used by the president of the hotel chain when he was in town. Goldfine's by the Bridge provided furniture and a carpet for the suite, then quietly brought the items back to the store for sale. Store owners said they never wanted to make a big deal out of their contribution.

Art for the suite was borrowed from the Tweed Museum of Art at UMD. Kennedy's team had been asked what kind of art the president liked.

Comfy inside

Susan (Carlsen) Highum was a junior at East High and found a first-floor office at the Montgomery Ward building to watch the motorcade. Her friend, Lynn Zentner, had a father who was the manager at Wards.

"JFK looked right up at me and waved directly to me as I hung out the window frantically waving to him. My friend and I joked that he liked blondes. I even commented that he wasn't very protected in that vehicle. What a handsome man he was."

* * * *

The ardor of Kennedy's time in the Northland was quashed by his assassination two months later. Residents contrasted the magic of his visit with the mourning over his death.

Given the security he saw in Duluth, Lawrence Yetka says he was miffed when he heard Kennedy was shot two months later in Dallas while riding with the top down in the same limo used in Duluth. Had it not been drizzling in Duluth, Kennedy likely would have had the top down here. The car had a clear "bubble top" that was used.

"He wanted to ride so people could see him," Yetka said.

The stop at Lowell School endeared Kennedy to the schoolchildren. When word came out that he had been shot, school officials refused to announce the news during classes in fear that they would be crushed.

Susan Highum was in study hall at East when the word came over the public address system that Kennedy had been shot.

"All the students were in shock when the second announcement came that President Kennedy had died," she said. "I can still clearly see his face and that magnetic smile as he waved to me."

Tickets to speech
Tickets for the speech President Kennedy gave at the University of Minnesota Duluth on Sept. 24, 1963, were a hot commodity. More than 5,000 people packed what today is known as the Romano Gymnasium for a speech that focused on job creation using the natural resources abundant in the upper Midwest. (Photo courtesy Kristi O'Brien)

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