JFK's Monessen visit 50 years ago
It's unlikely anyone in downtown Monessen at 11:40 a.m. Saturday will find anything significant about the moment.
But at that time 50 years ago today – on Oct. 13, 1962 – President John F. Kennedy received a thunderous welcome to the city from a crowd estimated at 25,000. He was in Monessen as part of a mid-term campaign tour in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Kennedy's message was brief. He wanted Mid-Monongahela Valley residents to vote the Democratic ticket from top to bottom in the Nov. 6 general election.
However, it really made little difference what he said from a stage on the Sixth Street side of the A&P parking lot on Donner Avenue.
“We love him, everyone loves him,” a young woman in the crowd told The Valley Independent.
The newspaper altered its deadlines that day to provide same-day coverage of the visit.
City Editor Allen J. Kline, who shared front page coverage with veteran reporter Larry Doyle, wrote that Kennedy told the cheering crowd that the “Republicans are against progress, always have been and always will be.”
While Kennedy thanked residents for their support in 1960, he said “I am conscious that more than 6,000 persons in this town voted for me as against about 1,600 for my opponent, but let's get them next time.”
Kline said the crowd roared its approval as Kennedy said with vigor: “This town for the past 30 years has known the difference between Democrats and Republicans.”
The eight-minute speech was highly partisan.
Kennedy noted that “one Republican congressman has called it highly unfair of me to cite the Republican record. I don't blame them.”
He said 85 percent of Republicans in Congress voted against the Housing Act, which included housing for the elderly and urban renewal.
“Eighty-one percent voted against the $1.25 minimum-wage legislation. I don't blame them for not wanting those facts made known,” Kennedy said. “Can you tell me how anyone can live on $50 a week? And yet they objected, 81 percent of them, to a minimum wage of $1.25 just as their intellectual forebears in the 1930s objected, 90 percent of them, to 25 cents an hour.”
The Monessen stop was one of several on a trip that day that included McKeesport, Pittsburgh, Washington, Pa., and Aliquippa.
Kline wrote that Kennedy told the Monessen throng that the president “has great powers in the field of foreign affairs. But on domestic issues, the president can only execute the laws passed by Congress.”
He said that is why he was campaigning across the nation for the Democratic Party.
He cited Medicare, aid to education and housing as key domestic issues decided by close votes in the Senate and House of Representatives.
He said it was “essential” that voters support Democratic congressional candidates if they want “the type of government which will meet the domestic challenges of the day.”
The president was 10 minutes behind schedule when he reached Monessen.
His motorcade included Gov. David L. Lawrence, U.S. Sen. Joseph S. Clark of Philadelphia, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richardson S. Dilworth, of Philadelphia.
Doyle noted in his story that the president, riding in a roofless shiny black Cadillac, “was given a rousing ovation every inch of the way” to the A&P parking lot.
“The tanned President, his famed brown hair blowing as his car breezed through the city, was nattily dressed in a dark blue suit, blue tie and white shirt,” Doyle reported.
His car, preceded by police from Monessen, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County and a squad of Secret Service agents, stopped at the intersection of Sixth Street and Donner Avenue, the site of the largest concentration of people.
“Perfect weather greeted President Kennedy, the first chief executive in office to visit the 64-year-old community,” Doyle wrote.
As he stood on the platform and greeted other dignitaries, a loud aerial display discharged American flags that floated to earth on miniature parachutes.
The Monessen High School band, directed by Julius D'Alfonso, saluted the president with a rendition of “Hail To The Chief.”
His comments brief, Dilworth introduced the president.
“Your candidates in Pennsylvania make the shortest speeches,” Kennedy said.
Mayor Hugo J. Parente served as host for the event. Monessen Councilman David Victoria presented a welcome address and Westmoreland County District Attorney Richard McCormick spoke before the president arrived. State Supreme Court Justice Michael A. Musmanno was a surprise visitor.
The event also drew U.S. Rep. John H. Dent; George R. Sweeney of Rostraver Township, chairman of the Westmoreland County Democratic Committee; state Assembleymen H.J. Maxwell, Charles Mills and Anthony Petrosky; mayors Frank Cantoni of Charleroi, Albert Delsandro of Donora, William Hill of Monongahela, William Mascara of North Belle Vernon, and William Venerri of Belle Vernon; Rostraver Township Commissioner John Kopp; William Pushkar, chairman of the Monessen Democratic Committee; Tom Beck, executive director of the Monessen Chamber of Commerce; and United Steelworkers of America district directors Eugene Maurice (13) and William Hart (19).
Detailed security preparations were made in advance of the president's appearance in Monessen. Secret Service agents were in the city most of the week.
Monessen Police Chief Michael Kuvinka said the day before the event that he expected more than 100 police officers and Secret Service agents to be on duty. Police officers, working with Secret Service agents, were stationed in windows and on rooftops of buildings surrounding the stage area.
Monessen police were assisted by officers from Monongahela, Donora, Charleroi, Bentleyville, Belle Vernon, North Belle Vernon and state police.
Many stores in downtown Monessen were closed during Kennedy's visit and most had signs welcoming the president.
The Valley Independent office, then on Sixth Street, was open, and employees waded into the sea of humanity to catch a glimpse of Kennedy. The alley behind the newspaper, a haven for smoke breaks, was off limits during the speech.
Cards welcoming the president were created by Monessen High School art students taught by Mary Bresa.
The crowd began to gather in downtown Monessen three hours before the president's scheduled arrival, prompting brisk breakfast business for Johnson's Restaurant on Sixth Street and other downtown establishments.
Monessen firefighters helped to handle the crowd and also had a first aid station near the speaking platform.
While security was ultra-tight for Kennedy's visit, children crammed against the barricades in the A&P parking lot were permitted to duck under the barriers and stand in front of them.
Herman Mihalich and Floyd Ganassi, with assistance from Tom Beck, were in charge of arrangements – Tom Novak, a White House communications official, described as “about the best I have seen.”
The Valley Independent reported Oct. 15 that the Mid-Mon Valley “was just about back to earth today following the excitement that accompanied” Kennedy's appearance.
The newspaper noted that the Monessen visit received national media attention from such papers as The New York Times and Philadelphia Bulletin. The latter called the arrangements in Monessen “about the best thus far” during Kennedy's whirlwind political barnstorming tour in five eastern states
The New York Times covered the Monessen appearance.
“In Monessen, there seemed to be more people out to see Mr. Kennedy than the official population of 18,400,” a Times reporter wrote. “They were packed into the town's parking lot and along all the adjacent streets. As he spoke of the importance of keeping the economy moving, Mr. Kennedy could see red smoke pouring from the stacks of the Pittsburgh Steel Company.”
Parente praised the police department for “turning in an excellent job.” He also touted Donora, Charleroi, Monongahela, Bentleyville, North Belle Vernon, Belle Vernon and Rostraver Township for sending police officers to Monessen.
“It shows what can be done when our communities get together for the common good of the entire Mid-Mon Valley,” Parente told The Valley Independent.
The Valley Independent reported that the podium on the stage was built by Monessen contractor Robert Haury to Secret Service specifications. Haury later turned over the podium as a gift to Monessen High School.
In an Oct. 15 editorial, Harry R. Pore Jr., president and editor of The Valley Independent, lauded President Kennedy for a message that created “thoughtful discussion among the citizenry” in the final weeks of the 1962 election campaigns.
“The personal appearance of the President in our midst has added zest to what has been up to now a lethargic campaign, which has aroused much more interest among the candidates and the professional politicians than it has among the people,” Pore wrote. “And this of itself is a worthwhile contribution.”
Kennedy drew a rousing response when he told them he would be back in 1964 “to speak for another candidate.”
In 1964, Kennedy likely would have been in the midst of a re-election campaign. It never happened, though, as the president was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on Nov. 22, 1963.
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.