People remember when the president comes to town.
Even now, 50 years later, those who were at Cheney Stadium when President John F. Kennedy gave a 13-minute speech at noontime remember.
Less what he said than what the day was like (sunny), what they were like (young and full of hope) and what the president was like (charismatic, handsome and inspiring.) Many also note the pain that would come two months later when Kennedy was killed.
We asked News Tribune readers for their memories of that September day. Here’s what they recall.
Jennifer Joyce, Gig Harbor
My friends and I were down on the field with a multitude of other citizens when security opened another area and we rushed for it. We ended up at a restraining rope. People were pushing to get closer, and as the group pushed, we were in pain because of the rope. All the same, that day will be in my mind forever as one of the most thrilling days of my life.
Bill Baarsma, Tacoma
Editor of The Puget Sound Trail
I was there, press pass securely pinned to my lapel, sitting with the White House press corps, thanks to Richard Dale Smith, vice president and dean of students at UPS. Smith, well connected with the state’s political establishment, made arrangements for the visit behind the scenes and provided me with the press credentials.
Ron Mann, my friend and associate editor, sat next to me as we scribbled notes during President Kennedy’s address. JFK had no teleprompter and generally depended on note cards. But it soon became obvious he was speaking extemporaneously about the value of a liberal arts education as he faced the thousands of students in the stands.
After the speech, JFK plunged into the crowd, shaking hands and chatting for over a half an hour. What I noticed was the handsome president’s infectious smile, deep tan, reddish brown hair and steel blue eyes.
After Kennedy’s departure Ron and I met with press secretary Pierre Salinger, who informed us that Kennedy’s next trip west would be to Dallas in November. Those words haunt me to this day.
Judy Krumwiede Dillon, Lakewood
Junior at St. Leo’s High School
St. Leo’s was an all-girls Catholic high school where we had to wear uniforms: white blouse, navy blue pleated skirt and blue blazer. We were able to attend the president’s speech by driving our own cars and with one chaperone who, of course, was one of the nuns, and we had to wear our uniforms.
Being the first Catholic president was truly memorable for us and we were so proud. We found seating, and I was at the end of an aisle near an entrance into the stadium.
When President Kennedy entered the stadium through that entrance, I leaned over the railing, cheering and getting a close view of him. I was so excited to be so close. I almost could touch him. I remember how the whole stadium cheered.
Bob Rudsit, Gig Harbor
News Tribune photographer
I was just in the crowd, surging along with everyone else, hustling and pushing and snapping away. We were shooting stuff on film. We had to make every shot count. Every time we took a picture, we had to be discerning.
I’m following this guy (Kennedy) around, shooting his pictures. Finally, as he’s leaving for the helicopter, I’m there by the fence, and he’s going by. I said: “I’ve been shooting your picture all day, I’d like to shake your hand.”
I shook his hand and that was it. My most memorable (president) was Harry Truman. That guy was spectacular. He’s the only one who really stands out in my mind as a great president. More so than Kennedy.
Jim Rudsit, Fox Island
Ninth-grade student at Gray Junior High School
On the day of the president’s visit, a television was set up in the auditorium for viewing. I stopped by to watch during my lunch period as JFK’s address was concluding. The TV coverage followed him as he waved to the crowd and made his way to the presidential helicopter.
My dad, Bob Rudsit, was a photographer for The Tacoma News Tribune, and I saw him in the crowd. As JFK was passing by, my dad walked over to the fence separating the president from the public. JFK stopped, reached over the fence and shook my dad’s hand.
That night when dad got home I was proud to report I saw him at work, shaking the president’s hand.
Sally Danielson, Graham
15-year-old sophomore at Clover Park High School
I was in Cheney Stadium to see President Kennedy, still one of the most memorable moments of my teen years.
Since none of my friends could drive yet, we scrambled to find a ride. Seems like most of my school was carpooling to this rare event. A friend’s parent drove a group of us.
It was a crisp, sunny day and I remember that JFK was very surprised to see hordes of young people clapping and cheering him. It was so crowded on the field, the only way I could really see him well was to turn my back and hold up my compact mirror, which worked perfectly.
I believe he revised his original speech to resonate with such a youthful and exuberant crowd. He was eloquent, presidential and very handsome.
That moment was forever etched in my mind, especially in context with his assassination less than two months later. It truly was an opportunity of a lifetime.
Dan Wrye, Olympia
Third-grade student at Whitman Elementary School
I didn’t get to Cheney Stadium, but I did get to see the president’s helicopter!
During the school day, the principal, Ms. Zoe Rae Saunders, announced over the PA that the president was coming to Tacoma and that his helicopter was going to be flying over Whitman.
All of the classes were sent outside, and sure enough, the president’s helicopter and two other helicopters flew directly overhead. I remember all the kids, including me, and teachers alike, jumping and waving at the helicopters as they flew overhead.
It made the news of his tragic assassination only two months latter all the more painful and personal to me.
Brian Sonntag, University Place
Sixth-grade student at Grant Elementary School
I remember the president arriving by helicopter – just like you’d see on TV. The ballpark was filled with students from UPS and PLU as well as dignitaries from all government levels.
President Kennedy inspired so many of my generation to pursue public service because when you heard him, you could sense that he believed what he said – and he cared about who he was talking to. President Kennedy always called public service “a noble profession and a high calling.” I’ve always believed that.
I was fortunate to be able to see him, hear him and be influenced by his strength – before we lost him two months later.
Virginia M. Hyatt, Tacoma
I had remarked to my friend Lee Keizer how much I would like to go to the president’s speech. The next day my daughter, Christy, came home with three tickets, saying all students had been given tickets and two of her friends could not attend.
When the three of us arrived at the stadium there was such a crush of people we were told to hold up our tickets and go on in. I never was more proud of our police, sheriff and State Patrol. They never took their eyes off us.
Then the president arrived, all tan, beaming and very handsome. His speech was captivating, and I don’t care whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, he demanded respect and got it.
Gordy Gillmer, Spanaway
16-year-old student at Stadium High School
The school district must have bused all the schools there. It was so crowded when I got there that I was stuck on the ground approaching the third base side of the grandstand behind a whole bunch of kids. I could barely see him through the people and could not hear a thing.
At the end, I ran around behind the bleachers to watch him get into Marine One (the helicopter) and take off. Two months later he was gone. Still unbelievable.
Carolyn Sullivan, Tacoma
Sophomore at Pacific Lutheran University
We were bused from PLU to the stadium that day. It was a beautiful, sunny day. I was thrilled to hear and see him. He was wearing a dark suit (dark blue, I believe) and his hair was chestnut brown. It was easy to pick him out of the crowd of people around him. What an honor to hear him speak.
John Butler, Tacoma
Student at Lincoln High School
In my first month at Lincoln, I met Jim French in Miss Brinegar’s home room. With him and a station wagon full of kids from the Boy’s Ranch, we roared out to Cheney Stadium with the windows rolled down, as it was a warm day.
The place was mobbed with people. And though we were a distance away, I remember seeing Kennedy’s copper-colored head shining in the sun. I remember his and the other voices echoing over the loudspeakers.
Katie Wrye, Tacoma
12-year-old student at Stewart Junior High School.
We were told at school that morning that if we had a ride there, we would be excused from school to attend. My best friend Linda called her dad and begged him to take us. He finally agreed.
My first memory after arriving at Cheney was how many people were there. I had never seen so many people in one place before. The crowd was cheering and excited with a lot of crying from just the idea of being there and getting a chance to see President Kennedy. It was very emotional for a 12-year-old girl.
I don’t remember if we were even able to hear his speech. The closest we came to seeing the president was when his helicopter took off and flew over our heads, kicking up a lot of wind and dirt.
Sandy Turchon, South Hill
18-year-old student at Tacoma General Hospital
I was in my first year of nursing school, and the school posted a notice that the president was coming to Cheney Stadium to speak. They would be able to arrange for us to go if any of us wanted, which many of us did.
It was more exciting than seeing Elvis would have been.
The stadium was filled with young, excited college-age people, most newly interested in this young energetic president with a beautiful family that must have made him seem more relatable to us. And we were at the right age to care about the world around us.
When the helicopters came over the hill bearing this man, the crowd went wild. I remember hanging on his every word like it was yesterday.
At one point we got very excited when we thought the president had mentioned flying over Jackson Hall, our dorm at the school of nursing. Only later did we realize we’d been led astray by his Boston accent and he’d really said he’d flown over Jackson Hole in Wyoming.
Two short months later in Dallas (and I am still briefly brought to tears as I write this) was my first 9/11 moment.
Reynold Muranaka, Lakewood
Student at the University of Puget Sound
I was in the grandstand. It was an afternoon on a weekday, so the stand was filled with mostly women and students. The president was handsome and, as he spoke in a Boston accent, I saw the women smiling and spellbound. I knew then that his re-election was a surety.
Rod Koon, Tacoma
Sixth-grade student at St. Patrick School
I attended St. Patrick’s Grade School, so having a Catholic president drop into your town was a really big deal. My parents were big JFK fans and so was our whole family. Kennedy was Catholic. He was young. He was energetic. He was visionary. And he also had a sense of humor. What more could you ask for in a leader?
I got excused from school that day to go to with my parents to Cheney Stadium to see him.
As a kid, I had seen many Tacoma Giants baseball games at Cheney, but this day brought another level of excitement to the stadium and to the crowd. It was strange to see the president on the same field where I had also seen Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal.
It was a very sunny day, and we waited a long time in the crowd before he arrived.
Secret Service people were on the roof and in the light stands. A stage was set up near the infield. Somehow, we had reserved seats, so we got to sit on the infield as well. The infield was crowded, as were the stands.
It was exciting to see and hear the helicopters come through the morning sky to land with the president and his crew.
My dad took photos of the event and put together a book that is one of my most special possessions. One of the amazing things is how close he was able to get to JFK to take pictures as the president moved through the crowd, shaking hands and greeting people.
I don’t remember any of the speeches that day or exactly what Kennedy said.
But I do remember how he said it – with great energy, passion and optimism, and hope for the future. Sadly, that all changed two months later in Dallas.
Liz Hendricks, Gig Harbor
Eighth-grade student at Mason Junior High School
With great anticipation I sat in the bleachers with my history class. The sun was shinning on the president’s beautiful auburn hair as he spoke to the crowd. It was a day I have always remembered. Little did we all know that within two months our president would be assassinated.
Pam Thompson Lewis, Tacoma
Senior at Franklin Pierce High School
Our class was privileged to witness the memorable moments of President Kennedy speaking in OUR city! An auto accident in Nevada one month prior had left me in a wheelchair, leg in a cast, but I was determined to be in the audience.
Robert Nice, Graham
I was working on the rescue rig at Station Six, at Ninth and A streets. We were sent to Cheney Stadium in case we were needed because of the large crowd. We were at Cheney for a few minutes when two or three helicopters landed in the south parking lot.
Two lines formed from the helicopters to Cheney’s main entrance. My partner, Jim Cozad, spotted a hole in one of the lines and headed for it. He and the president met at the hole and shook hands and I believe they spoke to one another.
I always thought President Kennedy saw Jim Cozad coming and even went out of his way to shake hands with him.
Tom McDonald, Tacoma
Freshman at Bellarmine High School
It was a sunny day. The stadium was completely full as well as most of the infield. The elevated stage was over the pitcher’s mound. The thunderous roar the Navy Sikorsky helicopter, in which he arrived, was deafening
It was easy for the entire school to walk down the hill to the stadium. The president’s arrival into the stadium was met with arousing applause. I was in front of the stage about 15 feet away, looking up at him made him bigger than life. Wow, I thought to myself, he thought enough about Tacoma to visit us … the president of the United States.
There were more young people than adults. He reached into his inside suit jacket and retrieved some notes. He briefly looked at them, looked out at the crowd, then put the notes on a chair, and just started to talk to us. I can’t recall what he talked about, but whatever it was I felt empowered and proud when he was finished. I felt he was talking to me, a boy just 13. He had a very charismatic personality.
Who would have guessed the happenings about seven weeks later. It still saddens me.
Matt Cleary Jr., Tacoma
Sixth-grade student at St. Patrick School
That day my mom let me skip school and go with her to Cheney Stadium to see our first Catholic president. I remember being up in the grandstands and when President Kennedy arrived. He was accompanied by several professors, politicians, police and other dignitaries.
I remember my mom, Barbara, who’d deliberately worn a red dress so the president would see her, screaming along with hundreds of others. She was sure he’d heard her screaming, “Kennedy, Kennedy. Look up here!” He looked up, while walking next to the grandstand, waving and smiling, and Mom snapped a picture with her Brownie camera.
She had the black-and-white picture developed as a 4-by-6-inch photo and framed it. We had that picture in our living room for years.
Kathy Bergh, Puyallup
11-year-old sixth-grade student
Getting to go to Cheney Stadium to hear President Kennedy speak seemed like the biggest thing ever to happen to me. I put on my best dress and, for the first time, carried a purse. All I had in it were tissues and my new Instamatic camera, but it made me feel mature.
As exciting as the afternoon was, the memories are just little snippets of time – getting to skip school, the policeman who searched my new purse, the standing-room only crowd on the field blocking my view, the infrequent glimpses of the speakers, not knowing which of the little men on the distant stage was the president until he spoke, the way all of the thousands of people around me and I hung on his every word, punctuating many of his sentences with applause.
Leann Peterson O’Neill, Gig Harbor
Daughter of faculty member at the University of Puget Sound
My father, Frank Peterson, attended the event. He recalled:
“It was such an honor to be there. Kennedy’s youth and idealism gave us hope. I was very aware of the Secret Service. They were everywhere, ready to go into action. No weapons were visible, but I was so afraid of a misstep, I didn’t even want to sneeze.
“He was personable with a firm, strong handshake. When he shook my hand, he looked me right in the eye and smiled. In those few seconds, I felt that I had his whole attention.
“While I don’t remember specific words he said, I recall his humor, sincerity, positive outlook and confidence. He was a very competent speaker, even going completely off notes and speaking passionately about education and the environment.”
I was 8 years old at the time and, when Dad got home that day, I wanted to know if Caroline and John were there. But I also wanted to touch my Dad’s hand since he had shaken hands with the president. Years later, Dad reflects on how extreme power and privilege may have affected Kennedy. But he still feels he met a strong, charismatic, dynamic person that day.
John Messina, Tacoma
Teacher and local Democratic Party official
I was an idealistic 23-year-old school teacher and an official in the local Democratic Party. I had two tickets to JFK’s appearance, sitting behind the college professors, whose schools sponsored the event. We were young and full of hope for the future under the leadership of our youngest elected president.
The choice for my second ticket was my mother or my new girlfriend (now my wife of 49 years). As a dutiful Italian son, I picked Mama.
After speaking, JFK came down the line of professors shaking hands. I was behind the row. My old German prof saw me and signaled me to come forward as Kennedy approached. The choice: Shake his hand or get a very close video of him. I chose to film. I still have that film of a young, god-like man approaching me – the thrill of a lifetime. Two months later he was dead.
I am now a 73-year-old not-so-idealistic lawyer, having watched the national government deteriorate into the dysfunctional institution it has become. I only wonder what might have been had JFK not been killed that terrible November day in 1963.
Jeanne Weese, Lacey
Mother of two
My husband, Merle, and I decided to hold our sons out of Hilltop Elementary School in Edgewood so that I could take the boys to see President Kennedy. Our oldest son, Douglas, was 9, and Marv was just 6 at the time. My husband was at work, teaching at Lincoln High School, and unable to go with us.
We had great seats on the first base side of the bleachers. President Kennedy passed right by the side of us with a big smile and wave. When the president was leaving the stadium, both the boys leaned over the side, and Doug, being tallest of the two, was able to reach down and shake the hand of President Kennedy.
Even though our boys missed a day of school, it was a great day to be at Cheney Stadium to witness this memorable day in history. They both have talked about the experience many times over the years and in some way felt connected to the Kennedys through this experience.
Gail Boyer, Lakewood
The momentous occasion was made even more amazing by the fact that my mother took me and my younger brother and sister out of school so we could attend. That was an unheard of move for kids who never missed school unless they were on their death bed. I remember the excitement at the event and hearing his voice.
My mother had campaigned for Kennedy, so the thrill of that day was in stark contrast to the one just two months later when he was assassinated. I will never forget coming home from school to find her in tears.
Julie Wiesner Landskov, Tacoma
Sophomore at Pacific Lutheran University and event usher
As SPURs (a national women’s service club), we, along with the Intercollegiate Knights and Alpha Phi Omega men (and our counterparts from UPS), were charged with helping usher the crowds into Cheney Stadium. Our day started early, and we were full of anticipation.
I remember how President Kennedy seemed to thoroughly enjoy speaking to the folks assembled. Most were students. He challenged us to pursue our education, which would prepare us to impact the world in a positive way. He also talked about the environment.
It was a memorable day to be sure. How shocked we were in November when he was shot. It seemed so personal, more so since had just been in our midst.
Don Doman, Tacoma
Student at Clover Park High School
I played baritone saxophone in the concert band. We were supposed to perform for the president’s appearance, but at the last minute we did not play (security?). I regret that over the years I’ve missed the opportunity to add to my credits: “Entertained President John F. Kennedy by playing saxophone.”
Ina Rebsamen, Ravensdale
Daughter of Western Union worker
My father, Lewis (Mike) Rebsamen of Puyallup, was in charge of setting up the teletype communications for the press box at Cheney Stadium. President Kennedy was in the press box, shook his hand and told him he did a great job. He also spoke about how he thought Tacoma was a beautiful city and how amazing Mount Rainier was. My dad just turned 90 last month.
The day before, President Kennedy was at the ground-breaking ceremony for the Hanford nuclear generating plant. On my father’s press pass it says “atomic power project ground breaking.”
Morrene Nesvig, Tacoma
Student at Mann Junior High School
The parents of my friend Janet drove a bunch of kids from school to Cheney Stadium. It seemed to me like a very big deal for a ninth-grader to get out of school to see the president of the United States. We sat near the top of the right field bleachers, so we got a good view of the passageway from the parking lot to the field where the president was to speak.
A large helicopter landed behind the stadium, and the crowd became excited as Kennedy’s entourage made its way toward us. The president turned to the bleachers, looked up, then smiled and waved at us. He looked so healthy, so vigorous (and, sadly, because of events in Dallas two months later), so alive. I guess I believed presidents were supposed to be old men with gray hair, but Kennedy seemed young, even to a 13-year-old girl who thought all adults were old.
My friend, Janet, turned to me and gushed, “What a babe!” I was a bit taken aback by Janet’s comment, which seemed ever so slightly disrespectful, but she was right.
Kennedy was not only the president, he was handsome!
Harold Friedman, Moraga, Calif.
Junior at Stadium High School
First, I saw his hair. The weather was perfect. In the fall sun, when I finally saw his face, he was infused with vigor (“vigah”).
The president asked, “… particularly that those of you who are now in school prepare yourselves to bear the burden of leadership over the next 40 years. … I want to see us continue to use our talents to the maximum and maintain the reputation of the United States as a citadel of freedom.” His words spoke directly to me.
When he finished his speech, we were told to remain in our seats as the president left the field. I fought my way through the crowd to get a better look. Somehow, I got close enough to shake his hand. KTNT broadcast the speech and the president’s departure. I was surprised when I got back to school to hear that my classmates saw me shake hands with the president.
I have the video of that handshake. Sometimes, I relive those few seconds and remember that very special day. It was one of the highlights of my life.
Kathleen Roberts Hall-Paulson, Pierce County
24-year-old mother of three
I had the privilege of attending the speech with my dad. As we got to the gate they pulled me aside and checked my purse. Being a young mom, I had quite a large bag. After I was cleared, we entered the ballpark. I don’t really remember that much about the speech, but I do recall how handsome he was.
As we were leaving, Daddy and I noticed the Secret Service detail was walking toward the parking lot. Just then Daddy spotted Pierre Salinger. He yelled out, “Hey, Pierre, how you doing?” and waved at him. I couldn’t believe he did that, but everyone in line laughed out loud. That made the memory of that day even more special.
Thomas L. Matthews, Olympia
15-year-old sophomore at Mount Tahoma High School
I remember two distinct things from that day. The first was I had a clear view of the president as he entered the stadium and waved and flashed that trademark smile.
The second was the police holding back a group of protesters as the president passed. The protesters were yelling and waving signs. I have no idea about what, but I remember I was shocked anyone could act up like that in front of the president.
Needless to say this was before I had taken a civics class and before my generation would give protesting a completely new look.
Richard Harris, Las Cruces, N.M.
12-year-old student at Truman Junior High School
We attended the speech as a school activity. We filed onto the field at Cheney, which was exciting itself, being a huge Tacoma Giants fan. I stood on the field next to my friend, Gary Erickson, who still resides in Tacoma, as we listened intently to what the president said.
He spoke with passion about the importance of the conservation of natural resources, the need for preserving open space for recreation and the need as a nation to preserve and protect places like Mount Rainier National Park and Cape Cod National Seashore on the East Coast.
Who knows, perhaps it had some influence on my career path, as I recently retired from a 32-year career with the National Park Service. Regardless of his speech’s impact on my future, the event is something I have fond memories of as a young boy in Tacoma.
Trish Randall, University Place
My neighbor Joanne Shera and I went to Cheney Stadium. In those days of low (or no) security, we were amused at being required to show the contents of our handbags and my camera. We were seated with some other friends on folding chairs in the infield about 200 feet from the platform where the dignitaries were seated. I was amazed to see sharpshooters up on the light stands and on the roof.
I had taken my trusty Kodak Duo-620, but only had two shots left on the roll of film. When Kennedy started to speak, I rose up and took the two photos, capturing only his head – and the backs of a lot of heads in front of me.
After the speech, the crowd was milling around and I found myself close enough to the president that I could have (but didn’t) reached out and touched him. I was struck by how beautiful he was. His abundant hair was a reddish-chestnut color.
And my camera was out of film.
Cheryl Hendrickson, Tacoma
15-year-old student at Mount Tahoma High School
My mother picked up myself and some friends and took us to the stadium. The students were let onto the infield and were running everywhere. I was running to get a good spot and ran right out of one shoe.
I ended up behind the band. As soon as the band stood up to play “Hail to the Chief” I jumped up on a musician’s chair to get just a glimpse of the president. His hair was reddish in the sunlight. Then I had to get back off the chair.
Adults and students alike listened to his speech. Then, within 60 days, the president was dead, and we all remembered the day at the stadium when he was so alive and vibrant in the sunshine.