ORONO — Three children squirmed their way to the front of a crowd of 15,000 people to sit close to the stage where President John F. Kennedy spoke at the University of Maine on Oct. 19, 1963.
The children, from neighboring French Island in Old Town, were excited to be on campus and to see the leader of the nation, who seemed like a member of their family — an important member — recalled Carol Nichols, whose maiden name was St. Louis. She was just 10 when she, her brother, Steve, and sister, Rebecca, sat on the grass looking up at the 35th president.
“We got right up to the stage and nobody stopped us,” said Nichols, who is now a graphic designer for UMaine. “There were a bunch of kids there.”
Fifty years later, Kennedy’s speech and the spectacle surrounding his visit to Maine remain vivid memories for Nichols, her family and others who witnessed the event.
Nichols’ mother, Adeline St. Louis, who still lives on French Island, said she and her children arrived at UMaine early on that beautiful sunny Saturday. She wanted her children to learn about the leader of the free world.
“I thought he was very, very smart and had the right principles and would do a very good job with the country,” she said Friday of Kennedy. “He was honest and honesty means a lot to me and I thought it would make them [her children] start thinking about government.
“It was a beautiful day. I was really proud to have the chance to see him,” St. Louis said. “We’re strong Democrats. We’re strong Catholics and we were really proud that he made it. It‘s something I’m never going to forget.”
“We had a bust of Kennedy in our living room,” Nichols recalled. “He was treated like part of the family. He was a really big deal, [our] being French Catholic and all.”
Local historian Richard Shaw saw Kennedy when he visited Bangor as a presidential candidate in 1960 and again at UMaine in 1963. He was 11 when the president came to Orono.
“I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember the vibe,” Shaw said. “There was quite a show before he arrived with high school bands, speeches and awards. Then the three helicopters arrived.”
Shaw, who was at the event with this brother, sister and mother, said he and his siblings were trying to guess which one of the three aircraft contained the president.
“They put a black robe on him because it was a convocation … he spoke about 25 minutes on the Cuban missile crisis,” The Bangor historian recalled. “I remembered how his voice echoed [over the loudspeakers].”
The speech was made on the first anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis and it was the last time Kennedy spoke publicly about foreign policy before he was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, while riding in a motorcade in Dallas.
“He really comes across as a mature, balanced leader who wants the U.S. to remain a leader in the world without getting involved in other life-and-death situations like the Cuban missile crisis,” UMaine history professor Howard Segal said, analyzing the speech.
Kennedy was known as the “quintessential Cold War warrior,” especially after his inaugural speech, where he spoke passionately about working together to “keep the communists at bay,” the history professor said.
“Here, a year after [the missile crisis], he’s much more balanced and much more mature and shows that he understood the last thing the world needed was another missile crisis,” Segal said. “He said it’s in the nation’s interest to try to forge a better relationship with the Soviet Union,” even with the differences in government.
Kennedy mentioned “hot spots” such as Berlin, the Middle East and southeast Asia, during his speech that put UMaine “literally on the front page [of the national press] for a day or two,” Segal said.
“Some people were angry at Kennedy for not going to war over the Cuban missile crisis, so while the reaction to the speech was generally positive, it was not completely positive by any means,” Segal said.
All did not go smoothly with Kennedy’s visit to Orono. The Secret Service and law enforcement agencies from all over the region converged on South Fourth Street Extension in Orono the night before the presidential visit after someone called in a bomb threat, said Old Town resident Alan Reynolds, who was a 23-year-old reserve officer for the town at the time.
“We found out the next morning that somebody had confessed to it [as a party prank],” said Reynolds, who went on to serve as Director of Public Safety for UMaine for 26 years. “There were no bombs, so everything went off the next day [as planned].”
The local officer watched the president’s helicopter land on campus and Kennedy walk to a platform built on the 50-yard line of the Black Bears’ football field.
“It was quite an experience,” Reynolds said.
Kennedy was also in Maine for an aerial tour of the proposed Passamaquoddy tidal power project in the Down East area, a tour he did with Maine Sens. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, and Ed Muskie, a Democrat, who also were on the stage with him at UMaine.
After Kennedy gave his speech, UMaine President Lloyd Elliot awarded Kennedy an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and then led the crowd in singing the Maine Stein Song, Shaw said.
For those in the crowd 50 years ago, the memories are still vivid of that day and of Kennedy’s assassination a few weeks later.
Tears started to fall when St. Louis spoke about the day she heard the president had been shot. She was watching a soap opera, she recalled.
“I just could not believe something like that could happen in this country,” the French Island resident said.
Her daughter was in a local Catholic school and a nun came in crying and sent everyone home.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Nichols said. “We kept saying, ‘That can’t be right.’ When we got home, it was like a death in the family. For a long time it felt like that.”
The St. Louis and Shaw families, and most others across the country, stayed home to watch the funeral.
“It was a hard thing to go through,” Nichols said. “It was like an age of innocence and when he died, that was lost. It was never the same.”
Kennedy was an unforgettable character, Shaw said.
“It’s just unbelievable that we had just seen him giving a speech on foreign policy” and a month later he was gone, Shaw said.