He never forgot West Virginia
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fifty years ago today, Earl Ray Tomblin was 11 years old, in the sixth grade, at lunch in Logan County.
"I remember being on the playground at East Chapmanville grade school," Tomblin, now West Virginia's 35th governor, said earlier this month. "That's back when they first came out with the little transistor radios and one of my classmates heard it on the news that the president had been shot and he was blurting it out that they shot Kennedy and of course none of us knew what to do.
"They gathered us in school and a short time later sent us home because it was just a whole nation, everyone, turning on the TV. I remember going home, watching on TV what was going on and the whole nation was in disbelief the president had been shot."
If any part of the country can be said to have mourned the killing of President John F. Kennedy more deeply than others, it may be West Virginia. Kennedy came here dozens of times and what he saw left an indelible impact on him and his presidency. Many of the issues that dominated his campaign persist today.
"He had done so much for West Virginia," said Pete Thaw, who coordinated Kennedy's 1960 campaign in Tyler County. "He was very taken with the poverty here. He had never seen poverty like he saw in Southern West Virginia.
"The president really loved West Virginia and it was a big loss to us," said Thaw, now Kanawha County school board president. "It's a terrible, terrible thing. I'm sorry the anniversary's coming up. They're making all these TV shows. I won't watch them, I can't watch them."
In an age before Twitter, before the Internet, before text alerts, the Marshall University student newspaper posted flyers all over campus saying the president had been killed.
"Everybody was shocked, stunned, that was all that was talked about. Things came to a standstill," said Jack Dickinson, a Marshall student who had briefly met Kennedy three years before. "We felt that he was an extraordinary person."
Kennedy was and still is the youngest president America has ever elected. He was a dashing, nationally beloved war hero with a glamorous wife and two young children. His average approval rating is still the highest in the history of the Gallup poll. He's the only president whose approval rating never dropped below 50 percent.
Carmelo "Mel" Cottone, a West Virginian born in the coal camp of Whitman, had begun working for Kennedy in 1960 and was a block from the White House when the president was shot.
"The Kennedys brought youth and vigor to the office," Cottone said. "In his three short years, thousands of young people volunteered for the Peace Corps. He really rejuvenated the interest in going into government service."
But it was not always the case.
Kennedy in West Virginia
Kennedy arrived in West Virginia as a young, rich senator with a religion that had people questioning whether his loyalties lay with the United States or with Rome. He left as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
On May 9, 1959, Kennedy spoke in Welch, at the McDowell County Democratic dinner.
He had landed at Mercer County Airport near Princeton that afternoon. He had lunch in Bluefield, shook hands at a hotel, was driven to a rally at the courthouse in Welch and then left to visit a coal mine.
It was his fourth trip to the Mountain State. The presidential election was 18 months away, but that night Kennedy denied that he was an active candidate and many believed him.
In the next day's Sunday Gazette-Mail, Don Marsh wrote, "The speech climaxed a busy day for the multi-millionaire lawmaker who looks more like the rage of the teen-age set than like a leading contender for his party's presidential nomination."
Kennedy formally announced his candidacy eight months later on Jan. 2, 1960.
He won the first contested primary, in Wisconsin, but -- crucially to a nation wary of his Catholicism -- lost the districts dominated by Protestants.
The true test of his candidacy would come a month later in the West Virginia primary, where Catholics were only about 5 percent of the population.
"The state was 90 something percent Protestant and he had to prove that a Catholic could win," Cottone said. "That was the critical issue in West Virginia."
"What happens to me in the West Virginia primary could tell really whether I'm going to be nominated," Kennedy said in Charleston on Feb. 6, 1960, the day he officially entered the primary.
Kennedy visited West Virginia 21 times in 1960, including 17 times in the month before the primary, according to archives compiled by the state Division of Culture and History. (His wife Jackie came seven times; his brothers Bobby and Ted came 15 and 20 times, respectively; his sisters Jean Kennedy Smith and Eunice Kennedy Shriver came once and twice, respectively; and his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver came once.) He made 96 campaign stops in the Mountain State, visiting 63 different cities and towns.
He went north to Weirton and south to Bluefield, east to Charles Town and west to Kenova. He came to Charleston 14 times, but also visited tiny mining towns like Itmann, Omar and Slab Fork.
He also funneled plenty of money to local party bosses, especially in Southern West Virginia, for their help in putting him atop their "slates" of candidates.
Kennedy's whirlwind tour of the state was organized by Bob McDonough, a printer from Parkersburg. They'd met at the 1956 Democratic convention and McDonough spent two years planning Kennedy's month in West Virginia.
Kennedy stopped in Crum, in Wayne County, on April 25, 1960.
Jack Dickinson, a junior at the time, played first trumpet in the Crum High School band, where his father was the principal.
"As the motorcade came in and they got out, we played 'Hail to the Chief,'" Dickinson said. "Then they all went in my dad's office and asked him how far it was to the next town.
"Looking into his eyes, I felt like there was something there that average people did not have, you can call it an aura or a quality."
That same day Kennedy stopped in Logan County, where 8-year-old Earl Ray Tomblin lived.
"He stopped at the crossroads. It was a big Trailways bus," Tomblin remembered. "Of course the Chapmanville High School band was out playing and just really the kind of excitement of everything that was going on, for an 8-year-old was really kind of something. I'd never seen a presidential candidate.
"Of course it was kind of a controversial year for Kennedy to be running in West Virginia, there were a lot of questions about him being Catholic. You know there's very few Catholics in Chapmanville."
On April 11, 1960, Kennedy spoke in Charleston at Morris Harvey College, which later became the University of Charleston.
"There is nothing in my religious faith that prevents me from executing my oath of office," he told the crowd.
But they were not entirely convinced.
In the next day's Charleston Gazette, Harry G. Hoffmann described the scene:
"Even at the college, Kennedy's Catholicism did not escape entirely as a campaign issue. Just before he arrived at the auditorium a slightly built, blond girl student left the building.
"'Where are you going?' asked a passing male student.
"'Anywhere but in there,' she replied.
"'Well,' said the girl, who appeared to be under voting age. 'I'm a Democrat but not a Catholic; does that answer your question?'"
Campaign themes still resonate
Kennedy, of course, eventually swayed enough of the skeptics, winning 61 percent of the vote. His opponent in the primary, Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey, dropped out of the race that day.
Kennedy won by speaking about what he saw in the state, issues important to West Virginians - coal, unemployment, inequality, hunger - issues that are just as resonant today as they were more than 50 years ago.
Much of what Kennedy said as he toured the state would fit perfectly in a modern stump speech. In other words: A lot hasn't changed.
Today West Virginia politicians of both parties denounce the "war on coal" that they see coming from the federal government, and the job losses that they say come with it.
It is not a new issue.
"Machines have been replacing men in the mines in recent years. Thousands are out of work and many of the older men among them do not see much hope of finding jobs," the Logan Banner wrote on April 26, 1960, the day after Kennedy's visit. "One of Kennedy's stops yesterday was at Rossmore, a little mining camp of a few dozen dwellings just outside Logan. A few years ago it was thriving, but now only three or four families remain. The other houses have boarded windows and are slowly falling into decay."
Kennedy called it "as distressed an area as I've ever seen," and his speech that night sounded a theme eerily familiar to today.
"There is no industry which has suffered more from government neglect in the last eight years than the coal industry," Kennedy told a crowd of 600 at the Logan courthouse. "And there is no industry which holds greater promise for the future. Eight years of short-sighted policies - of drift and indecision in Washington - have seen the gradual deterioration of a great industry."
Since 2009 and the beginning of the Great Recession, Republicans and Democrats have continually squabbled over unemployment benefits. How much, and for how long, should we help people who lose their jobs and can't find new ones?
It is not a new issue.
"We talk about new industries and new products for the future - and we must," Kennedy told a crowd of 1,500 in Clarksburg on April 18, 1960. "But we must also do something right now, before those new industries and jobs are here, about those who are unemployed now, who can't find a job and who can't get by on an average unemployment check of $23 a week...There are more than 60,000 of those men in West Virginia today and only half of them are drawing unemployment compensation. It is a double failure of our civilization if we cannot permit them to pay their bills and feed their families while looking for another job."
In 2011, a protest in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan jumpstarted a national conversation on economic inequality. "Occupy" demonstrations spread to hundreds of cities around the U.S. and the world. There was an Occupy Charleston and an Occupy Huntington, an Occupy Martinsburg and an Occupy Morgantown. Inequality became a major theme of the 2012 presidential campaign.
Income inequality has grown more extreme in recent years, but it is not a new issue.
"Today the United States is living better than ever before. We have more swimming pools, freezers, boats and air-conditioners than the world has ever seen," Kennedy told a crowd at Bethany College, on April 19, 1960. "'But the test of our progress,' said Franklin Roosevelt, 'is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.' By that test, the last several years have been years of economic failure."
One of the most dramatic bills to pass through the West Virginia Legislature in 2013 was one that attempts to provide better breakfasts for hungry school children. Several delegates were visibly emotional while discussing it, recalling a childhood growing up hungry.
One delegate said that perhaps school children should work to earn their meals. Other delegates looked aghast, one practically shouted at him.
Today, hunger is marked more by obesity than emaciation. The problem is no longer a persistent lack of calories, but a boom and bust cycle of not enough food, followed by too much of the wrong kind. Potato chips and Mountain Dew have replaced grains and powdered eggs as stigmatized foods.
But it is not a new issue.
"Thousands of your citizens -- 14,000 here in Mercer County alone -- are forced to struggle for subsistence on a diet which consists primarily of flour, rice and cornmeal," Kennedy said in Glenwood, on April 26, 1960. "A diet which does not permit a healthy, decent existence, a diet which is causing malnutrition, chronic diseases and physical handicaps, a diet which is a disgrace to a country which has the most abundant and richest food supply in the history of the world."
One year later, Alderson and Chloe Muncy, from Beartown in McDowell County, received $95 in food stamps, the first people in the country to get benefits from the new program. They spent $20 the first day, buying, among other things, a gallon of apple butter for their 15 children.
Today, one in five West Virginians and 35 percent of McDowell County participates in the SNAP program, as food stamps are now called. In early November, federal cuts reduced SNAP funding in West Virginia by $36 million. Both parties have proposed plans with further cuts in SNAP spending.
"The first thing he did when he got elected was he sent food to McDowell County," Cottone said. "He never forgot what West Virginia did for him." Reach David Gutman at email@example.com or 304-348-5119.