Memories remain of JFK's visit to McKeesport
Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy gave an 11-minute speech in what then was the fifth largest city in Western Pennsylvania.
“Why McKeesport?” 14-year-old John Galla wondered. “We were a typical, busy mill town like so many that once dotted the Mon Valley.”
It was part of a tour of mill towns. Kennedy went to Aliquippa and Pittsburgh on Oct. 12, 1962, then to McKeesport, Monessen and Washington on Oct. 13.
“I come here and ask your help for the Democratic Party,” Kennedy said in a lot between city hall and the Daily News building.
Galla's father awakened him and his sister early on Oct. 13 to get a good seat to see a man Galla called his hero.
“I had all the excited anticipation of a kid on Christmas morning,” said Galla, now 64 and living on Long Island.
With 45,096 inhabitants, McKeesport was still the second largest city of Allegheny County. With a bustling downtown, it was bound to draw a crowd, and estimates put the number hearing Kennedy at 25,000.
Presidential press secretary Pierre Salinger said it was a “big-league crowd” and “certainly the largest we have met thus far” on that trip.
It wasn't without mishap, according to an edition of The Daily News that hit the streets a short time after the speech.
A wooden barricade snapped as a crowd pressed in, leaving the 7-year-old son of Port Vue's mayor and an 8-year-old girl with minor facial bruises.
A 13-year-old Clairton girl was shaking the president's hand at the time.
“I fell right on top of him,” Linda Casaldi said. “I almost fainted.”
In 1962, Kennedy was just a few blocks from the Penn McKee Hotel, where he and then-fellow U.S. Rep. Richard M. Nixon debated the Taft-Hartley Act on April 21, 1947.
The act was a bid to put limits on labor unions. It became law over the veto of President Harry S. Truman.
Nixon spoke in favor of the act, in a debate sponsored by the Junto, a political and economic discussion group formed by city businessmen.
“He won that one, and we went on to other things,” the president said in remarks transcribed by the White House and preserved by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
In 1947, Kennedy came to a Republican city. One of those who greeted him in 1962, Mayor Andrew J. Jakomas, presided over a flip of the city to the Democrats in the 1950s.
“When Greeky (Jakomas) took office, all the city employees were Republicans,” former longtime city GOP chairman Clifford W. Flegal Sr. said. “They were told, get 50 people to change over or else you're fired.”
During his stay in McKeesport, the president took a telephone call. Jakomas told The Daily News it “concerned legislation which Congress is trying to wrap up,” prior to the Nov. 6, 1962, election.
In 1962, 68-year-old U.S. Rep. Elmer J. Holland, a Democrat from Pittsburgh's South Side, sought a fourth full term in a seat he first won after the death of McKeesport Democratic Rep. Vera Buchanan. Holland won by a 2-1 margin over Republican Budd E. Shepherd.
“Elmer Holland ... wrote one of the most important pieces of legislation in the last 10 years,” Kennedy said, “to re-train men and women who have exhausted their unemployment compensation, who can't find a new job.”
U.S. Sen. Joseph S. Clark Jr., a Philadelphia Democrat, was a week away from his 61st birthday. He would win narrowly, by 51 to 49 percent, over U.S. Rep. James E. Van Zandt, an Altoona Republican.
“Joe Clark ... has stood on issue after issue of benefit to the people of this state and country,” Kennedy said.
David L. Lawrence, 73, was approaching the end of his term in office as governor. Philadelphia Mayor Richardson Dilworth had the Democratic nod to succeed him.
Kennedy called Dilworth “the kind of progressive, experienced legislator that this state, one of our great industrial states, is going to need.”
Northeastern Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Bill Scranton would defeat Dilworth by 55 percent to 44 percent on Nov. 6. In the final year of Scranton's term, a constitutional convention would allow governors to seek a second term.
“We are the beneficiaries of the New Deal,” JFK said. “I want to be sure in the 1970s that there are the people of this country who are the beneficiaries of what we did on the New Frontiers of 1962.”
Kennedy wouldn't see the 1970s. No one knew that the nation's 35th president had just over 13 months to live.
Galla said Kennedy rode into McKeesport in the same limousine that would be a target in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
“It makes me wonder,” Galla said, recalling police on every rooftop in 1962, “We did it right in McKeesport. Why not there in Dallas?”
Galla recalled the president's departure from McKeesport.
“When JFK hopped in his limo to leave,” Galla said, “he literally hopped onto the car's back trunk area. He sat on the trunk, with his legs and feet hanging down on the back seat of the limo.”
“We recall the meticulous arrangements made to protect the President during his McKeesport visit,” The Daily News editorialized after the assassination. “So complete were the precautions, with armed officers on the rooftops and plainclothesmen milling in the mob, that some thought them overdone — certainly for a city which held Mr. Kennedy in such high esteem.
“But now we know!” the News editorialized. “The President was in constant peril.”
Jakomas would preside over what may have been the first memorial to Kennedy.
“Three days after Kennedy was cut down by a sniper's bullet in Dallas, Jakomas announced plans to erect a statue of the late president on Lysle Boulevard,” historian Jason Togyer wrote in his blog in 2011, after the Kennedy library released an audio version of the Tube City speech.
“The city doesn't have a statue of any kind right now,” the late mayor was quoted as saying in that 2011 blog, “and I'd like this to be our first one.”
Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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