Look Back: Utahns recall John F. Kennedy's visit 50 years ago
Although he was only 6 years old at the time, Brad Westwood vividly remembers the day President John F. Kennedy came to Utah 50 years ago this week.
"Because [Kennedy] was Roman Catholic and I was attending St. Francis School in Provo, Utah, everyone who was Roman Catholic was very attuned to his visit," Westwood said. "I remember my priest, the brothers, the nuns talking about the fact that this president was coming."
Now director of the Utah Division of State History, Westwood better understands the context of the rhetoric Kennedy delivered during his brief visit to the Beehive State, from an ardent defense of U.S. foreign policy interests to an emphasis on water conservation.
"Even though it was described as focusing on conservation, he also was very concerned about this emerging conservative notion or ideas of anti-United Nations, anti-foreign policy, a radical reduction of federal spending," Westwood said. "There were a lot of emerging issues that he felt that Salt Lake City was a perfect venue to speak about this."
On Sept. 26, 1963, Air Force One touched down at what was then Romney Airport in Salt Lake City, bringing the 35th president to town on the third day of a five-day swing through 11 states.
At about 6 p.m., Kennedy's presidential motorcade wound its way from the airport through the downtown core, down North Temple to State Street to 200 South. It ended up on Main Street, taking a circular route to Hotel Utah now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building where Kennedy would spend the night.
Westwood said news accounts report that up to 100,000 citizens gathered along the parade route, a huge proportion of the capital city's 189,000 residents at the time.
That evening, Kennedy spoke before a capacity crowd of 8,000 that filled the Tabernacle on Temple Square. Citizens and dignitaries, including U.S. Sen. Frank Moss and LDS Church President David O. McKay, listened as Kennedy expounded on America's irreversible role as a global leader, a strong rebuke of conservative firebrand Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater.
"We must recognize that foreign policy in a modern world does not lend itself to simple black-and-white choices of good or evil," Kennedy said.
"The United States has rightly determined, in the years since 1945 under three different administrations, that our interest, our national security, the interest of the United States of America, is best served by preserving and protecting a world of diversity in which no one power or no one combination of powers can threaten the security of the United States."
During the speech, Kennedy also paid tribute to the pioneers who settled the Salt Lake Valley.
"If our task on occasion seems hopeless, if we despair of ever working our will on the other 94 percent of the world population, then let us remember that the Mormons of a century ago were a persecuted and prosecuted minority, harried from place to place, the victims of violence and occasionally murder, while today, in the short space of 100 years, their faith and works are known and respected the world around, and their voices heard in the highest councils of this country," Kennedy told the crowd. "As the Mormons succeeded, so America can succeed, if we will not give up or turn back."
Kennedy's visit to Utah was officially under the banner of conservation, and on the morning of Sept. 27, 1963, he pressed a button to start the first generator at Flaming Gorge Dam.
The visit made lasting impressions on everyday witnesses.
Mike Evans of Salt Lake City walked a block on the "warm autumn day" from Jackson Junior High to cheer for Kennedy.
"I thank whoever let us walk over to North Temple and see the most famous man in the world drive up, stop and wave to us kids," Evans said. "It was only a few minutes, but nothing that exciting ever happened in that school again."
Twitter: @jnpearce Video • Watch video that includes recollections of Utahns present for the visit.
Transcript • Read the full text of Kennedy's speech at the Tabernacle.
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