Memo From Mac

 

                                                                   


The Hutchinson News
Hutchinson, Kansas

Remembering John F. Kennedy 
November 22, 1963

This was one of those days when everyone will want to remember where he was when he heard the news.

I was at McPherson College Friday. I had just finished speaking to the student assembly and was having lunch with faculty members and several students.

A student had just asked whether I thought Kennedy could defeat Nixon again. Before I could answer, a faculty member suggested: "Since this is getting into a political discussion, I think it is time to break it up." So we did.

Then a girl from the school paper said she wanted to interview me and she started to ask a question. Just then, before she could finish her question, the same professor who had broken up the political discussion, grabbed my arm. "Did you hear that?" he asked. "The President has been shot." I became aware of the radio blaring in the lobby of the student union. I listened a moment, unbelieving, helpless, then I went into an office and called Fred Brooks, my Day Editor, and told him I'd be right home.

I've got plenty of space," Fred said. "Don't worry." Then he added: "I think he is dead."

The radio in my car the old family Volkswagen bus wasn't working. I'd meant to get it fixed, but I never got around to it. I started down K61, the longest stretch of highway in the world. The cold north wind buffeted the bus and I couldn't get it over 50 miles an hour. It was a long, agonizing drive. I had only one match, and after I used it, I had to keep cigarettes going, one after another. And I thought. And remembered.

I remembered the first time I met him. He came to Hutchinson on a raw March day in 1960. Hubert Humphrey also came, and Lyndon Johnson and Stuart Symington had also been invited by state Democrats who were meeting here. Kennedy was a minor candidate. Not many were interested in him. Someone suggested he should be met at the airport by a Cadillac, but there aren't many Democrats with Cadillacs. So, finally, Steve Johnson and I went out to the airport to meet him, in one of the Johnson and Sons Funeral Home Cadillacs.

We drove through the portals of grain elevators on East Fourth, and Kennedy quizzed me about the wheat surplus. Later that night, he invited Peggy and me up to his hotel room, but the elevator in the Baker hotel stuck, we were trapped for half an hour, and by the time we got to his room, he was ready to leave for New Hampshire, for the primary there, and we only had time to say goodbye.

I saw him next in June that year, in Los Angeles, on the loud, glorious night when he came to the Arena to acknowledge his nomination by his party for President.

It was October, when I saw him again, when he stopped briefly at Wichita in the final days of the campaign. After the meeting in the baseball park and he had gone back to his plane at the airport, I went aboard the Caroline, and was ushered up to his compartment, at the front of the plane, to talk to him.

The News had just come out with an endorsement for him, and I told him about it. An advertiser cancelled an ad, as a result of the endorsement, and I got letters from readers canceling subscriptions. Many of the letters, which I still have in my file, were vicious attacks on me because I am Catholic, as Kennedy was, and the writers saw our endorsement as some terrible Roman plot. This was ridiculous because the owners of The News, who finally decide on endorsement, are neither Catholic nor Democrats, but simply had chosen what they thought was the best man. But in retrospect, those letters are part of the climate of hate in which the President died.

The next time I saw him was in the cabinet room, just off his office in the west wing of the White House, to which he had invited me. It was in that early spring of 1961, in that wonderful honeymoon time between the inauguration and the Bay of Pigs.

In those days the White House was vibrant with the newness of its inhabitants. He came in and grabbed my hand and said, "John, thanks for everything." I wondered if he really knew who I was or if he'd just been well briefed by Pierre Salinger and Ken O'Donnell. But he had that way about him that made me believe he did know me.

I saw him last April of this year. Washington was lovely with a bursting spring. The President had spoken at noon at our newspaper editors' convention. After the lunch, Ken O'Donnell called my hotel room and said, "Why don't you come over about four for a visit?"

I remember that, as we walked across Lafayette Square with its bright greening grass and new flowers, I warned Peggy, "Don't get your hopes up. We probably won't see the President. I'm sure he is too busy. But at least you'll get to see the inside of the west wing."

But after we'd sat for 20 minutes, Ken O'Donnell, in shirt sleeves, stuck his head in the door to the reception room and said, "Hey, John, come on in here and say hello to the President."

So we went into the oval office and there he was, at the far side of the room. He'd changed from the dark suit in which he had spoken at lunch to a gray one that looked like a wash and wear. He was smoking one of his rare cigars. He shook hands vigorously and immediately asked how I thought his speech to the editors had gone. I gave him a lame answer. Then Peggy interrupted to tell him bravely how one of our sons had commanded us to tell the President, when we saw him, that he our son was studying hard to be an astronaut.

"What's his name," the President asked eagerly, cutting off his conversation with me. "Terence," she replied. "That's a good Irish name," he said, and he took her around behind his desk, and wrote out a message for Terence. Then he came back to ask me about the wheat referendum in Kansas.

I remember how vigorous he looked. How hale and hearty. He waved the cigar and laughed and poked a long finger into my chest to make a point. When he ushered us out, he reminded us to be back in two hours for the reception he was throwing for the editors and their wives.

He was obviously enjoying the prospect of entertaining a group, most of whom were against him.

I remember him that night, milling with the crowd of editors and their wives, whose crush almost pushed him back into the laps of the Marine strings that were playing just inside the White House entrance. But he was laughing and enjoying every minute of it.

And now he is dead.

I forced the old bus down the long diagonal from McPherson. I didn't know for sure that he was dead, but I felt he was. I wondered what the Russians would do now. What kind of President would Lyndon Johnson make? What would be the opposition's campaign now? I shuddered, as the cold wind whistled around me, to remember that I had written in a prediction before the convention that Lyndon Johnson would be the vice presidential nominee, that he would "ponder the fact that the last Johnson to be President, began as vice president."

I came off the highway and turned down Plum Street and as I met cars, I looked at the drivers and tried to discover from their faces whether they knew or not. I came on down across the tracks and turned off Plum onto Second which would lead me to my office. It was then I knew.

Looking far down Second, all the way down to Main, I could see on top of the Wolcott Building the American flag at half-mast.

In the office, Fred Brooks, with his sleeves rolled and his tie pulled down, was leaning over the Associated Press ticker. The reporters and the girls from the business office were standing in a ragged semi circle around the television set, which is just behind my desk.

I took off my coat and sat down to write an editorial.

It was hard to do. I'd not only lost a President, but also a friend.


Return to Columns.