Current Lebanon area resident (and former London, Ohio, newspaper editor) Fran Odyniec shares a story with us connecting two campaign visits in 1960.
How could two cities — 424 miles apart in two neighboring states, according to AAA Travel Services — have had one thing in common during the 1960 run for the White House? Both were and continue to be bastions of Republican voters.
Lebanon, the county seat of Lebanon County, had a population of 30,045 in 1960; London, Ohio, the county seat of Madison County (34 miles southwest of Columbus), had a population of 6,379, according to the 1960 U.S. Census.
But those numbers did not deter a 43-year-old senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, the Democrats’ choice for president, from visiting both cities when he was running against 47-year-old Vice President Richard M. Nixon, the Republicans’ candidate.
Both candidates crisscrossed the country from Labor Day to seven days before Election Day, Nov. 8, 1960, seeking votes that ended up in a razor-thin victory for Kennedy, with 34,227,096 votes, vs. 34,107,646 votes for Nixon. (Nixon declined to contest the results.)
On to Lebanon
Kennedy’s plane landed at the Harrisburg-York State Airport at 4:45 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 15, to begin a two-day campaign stump through Central Pennsylvania.
Later that evening, the Patriot-News reported, Kennedy addressed a crowd of 9,000 well-wishers at a $100-a-plate roast beef dinner at the Embro Mosque and Scottish Rite Cathedral in Harrisburg.
The next morning, Kennedy’s 15-car motorcade traveling Route 422 arrived in Lebanon about 10:30 a.m. A throng of 5,000 jammed Market Square at Ninth and Cumberland streets as the Lebanon High School Band played “Anchors Aweigh” in honor of Kennedy’s naval service in World War II.
In his speech, Kennedy said, “I think here in Pennsylvania this election may well be decided.”
He continued: “We in this state of Pennsylvania know better than almost any state in the Union that we are not realizing our potential. When half of the steel mill capacity in this state is unused and, therefore, half of the steel workers in this state do not find a good job, then you know that a basic asset which distinguishes us from our adversaries, the productive capacity of the United States, is not being used.”
Lebanon at that time was the site of a Bethlehem Steel plant that occupied an 18- by 24-block section of the city and produced nuts and bolts, rail spikes, bar mill and roll mill shop, sucker (well) rods and cooper shop.
Kennedy later offered a sort of warning, noting that he didn’t “want a historian in 1970 to write that it was during these years of our responsibility that the tide began to go out for freedom, that the influence of the United States as a great world power began to fade, and that the future began to move in the direction of the Communists. … I ask your help in this election.”
Among the 5,000 in Market Square that morning was 22-year-old Jack Cantwell (retired from the communications industry and now of Myerstown), then a TV cameraman for WLYH-TV, Channel 15.
“I was covering a live broadcast from a platform in the middle of 9th and Cumberland,” he recalled one recent morning over coffee, noting that he was about 10 to 15 feet from the dais. “I’m looking through the camera and there’s JFK. I was so awestruck. He was such a striking and articulate man. I’d seen him on TV every day and now there is the guy.”
Much to his surprise nobody from the Secret Service had given Cantwell security clearance. “I had no press pass. It was very, very loose with security,” he said. “It was unreal being that close to him.”
As far as the crowd’s reaction, Jack said that “they were regular Lebanon people, reserved. They applauded and appreciated someone of his magnitude to come to Lebanon to win over voters.”
Tina Marie Deraco (retired from sales and business management and now resides in the Los Angeles area) was 9 years old and attending third grade at St. Mary’s in 1960. She did not go to the JFK rally that morning, but her parents did.
Deraco said in a phone interview that at the time it was very unusual for a candidate (for the presidency) to put Lebanon on the campaign schedule. “I don’t recall any other candidates coming to town to talk to people.”
“He was excited about JFK’s candidacy,” she said of her father, Gus, a voracious reader of nonfiction, and not married to a specific policy. “After he saw (Kennedy) he was beside himself with excitement. I vividly remember that he said that Kennedy was a good thing for the country.”
Her mother, Maxine Frysinger Deraco, was politically savvy and taught her to vote based on the morality of a candidate. She said that a candidate had to earn her vote.
“They were very moved by his youthful enthusiasm, intellect and vision for the country,” she said. “They both voted for him.”
One issue that continually hounded Kennedy was that he was a Catholic — the first Catholic to run for the presidency.
“There was quite a bit of bigotry at that time,” Deraco said. “I recall that people feared a Catholic president would be controlled by the Vatican.”
In his junior year at Lebanon High School, Jim Zearfoss (a retired construction engineer now living in Quakertown) admitted that he was more concerned about his part-time job and “chasing girls” than politics, but he was curious about seeing a person of Kennedy’s age running for president. His personal view at the time was that everybody in government was too old to serve effectively.
He got out of school that Friday morning to attend the rally in Market Square. The only spot he could find was in the parking lot that was in front of the linoleum store opposite the Colonial Theater.
“There were Republicans and non-Republicans in that square,” he said. “You could see that the crowd was curious and wanted to be near him and what he had to say.”
The feeling Zearfoss got from the crowd was that Kennedy was very dynamic, but he didn’t have a chance of winning the presidency. “Jesus running as a Democrat would lose in a landslide,” he remembered of the Republican sentiment in Lebanon.
However, something about Kennedy besides his charisma impressed the young Zearfoss. “I thought of him that as their (Democrats) guy he is really sharp. He knew the direction the U.S. needed to go and he presented very well and he meant it.”
After Lebanon, the Kennedy entourage headed to Reading where the Harrisburg Patriot estimated 20,000 people waited for JFK in the city’s Penn Square for a scheduled noon rally. Later that afternoon, the campaign trail led to Lancaster’s Penn Square, where the Patriot said 7,500 people were waiting, followed by a trip to visit the York Inter-State Fair.
One month later: London, Ohio
Another bastion of the Republican party was and is London, Ohio. One month and a day after Lebanon, Kennedy arrived under a clear blue Ohio sky on Monday afternoon, Oct. 17, to take to a platform erected on the expansive south lawn of the Madison County Courthouse. Not only was he in Republican London but also in a Republican county of 467 square miles, with 88 percent of it farms and counting only 380 registered Democrats.
So, it stands to strategic reasoning that Kennedy would later include comments about the conditions that challenge farmers and make a connection between the steel industry and agriculture.
Jane Beathard, a lifelong London resident and retired journalist then a 13-year-old eighth grader at St. Patrick’s School, was standing in front of the platform along with Tom O’Donnell, one of her classmates. They had fashioned a 20- by 40-inch poster that read: “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. You can beat that Nixon trick.”
“As he went to the platform,” she recalled, “he looked down at Tom and me and read our poster and laughed.”
Beathard admitted between sips of coffee on a recent Friday afternoon in London that their eighth-grade nun, Sister Mary Clarita, had come up with their slogan as a way to keep her and O’Donnell busy and out of trouble turning it into a poster.
About 25 Kennedy Girls, mostly daughters of active Democrats, were positioned in front of the platform. They wore white blouses, dark skirts, and were topped off with straw hats and Kennedy sashes.
“I gave up on being a Kennedy girl,” Beathard said. “I wanted to hold up that poster. It was a big statement on my part.”
She said that when Kennedy and the press corps arrived, the crowd estimated to be 3,800 by the local Madison Press, filled the south lawn and spilled out onto the adjacent Main and High streets. “It went crazy,” Beathard said. “They mobbed him. My mother was part of that, too.”
Beathard fondly remembers that her mother Bertha, was able to touch his hair as he passed by.
Time magazine in its Oct. 30, 1960, issue called the size of the London crowd “a surprising curbside turnout.” Members of the local Democrat Committee linked arms and helped Kennedy navigate the crowd, said Beathard. Amazed by the large crowd gathered for Kennedy, her father Howard said, “If he can draw that kind of crowd in London, he can win.” Beathard’s parents were farmers as well.
At the beginning of his speech Kennedy joked, “There’s a terrible rumor that this is a Republican community. I’m sure it’s not true.”
In his remarks Kennedy said, “I will give you two problems which face us as citizens and face the next president of the United States … industrial employment in the state of Ohio and around the country and … agriculture. Agricultural income is the most difficult and important domestic problem … because of its effect on farmers and … its effect on industry.”
He pointed out that government farm supports were holding down the prices farmers got for their crops “until farmers are driven off their farms in increasing numbers.”
Kennedy tied farmers to steel workers by pointing out that “farmers of the United States are the No. 1 market for Detroit automobiles. When farm income drops, Detroit slows up. When Detroit slows up, Pittsburgh slows up. Our farm income has dropped nearly 23 percent in the last 18 months. The average wage for a dairy farmer in a state like this is about 53 cents an hour.”
However, the London rally was almost an afterthought in the campaign’s planning for that day, which began in Dayton, Ohio, and wound up in Columbus. A Beathard family friend, Joe Sullivan, was running as a Democrat for Congress. Jane’s parents, who were hard-core Democrats, worked on Sullivan’s campaign but, she said, “Joe was a nobody, and his Republican opponent was the incumbent Clarence J. Brown, who owned The Madison Press.”
According to Beathard, Sullivan saw Kennedy on the campaign trail somewhere in Ohio, and asked a staffer if JFK could come to London and give his campaign a much-needed boost. Sullivan shrewdly crafted his request: “Could you come and help another Irishman?”
In his opening remarks that Monday in London, Kennedy referred to Sullivan as “our next congressman-to-be.”
Catholic and Democrat
Beathard’s parents were Catholic and farmers in Madison County. Just as in Lebanon, people feared that if Kennedy were elected president “the Pope will be here.” Jane said that her mother just laughed at that statement.
Conversely, Jim Zearfoss, who was at the Lebanon rally, said, “I was intrigued by the fact that a Democrat would see any chance of gaining a vote in Lebanon County.”
The presidential election then three weeks away would provide a slightly different outcome.
Author’s note: Thanks to Jo Ellen Litz for her input on this story. Thanks also to Shane Keenan and Tim Ritchie for their help with photos.
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