John F. Kennedy speaking from the Adams Street side of the Lucas County Courthouse in downtown Toledo on Nov. 4, 1960, drew a huge and enthusiastic crowd just days before the young senator was elected president. Photo courtesy of Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections at the University of Toledo
The lawn of the Lucas County Courthouse overflowed with people.
Women in fur coats and men in hats. Young ladies with red lips, “Let’s back Jack” sashes, and flower corsages. An accordion player, judges, reporters, vendors, bobby-soxers, college students, hecklers, and local politicians — “a mass of humanity.”
They pressed up to the courthouse and filled every foot of ground, peered out of upstairs windows, and clogged Adams Street.
And when John F. Kennedy arrived — nearly two hours late for this scheduled campaign stop — the “roaring throngs” welcomed him to Toledo.
It was Nov. 4, 1960 — the final days of the young Democratic senator’s presidential campaign against Vice President Richard Nixon.
Commentary: How the JFK years live on in memories
About 1,200 people greeted the future president at Toledo Express Airport. Others caught a glimpse of his passing motorcade as it wound through the city. A reported 25,000 smashed around the courthouse, where the crowd barely parted to let the candidate through.
Days later, he would be elected president. Three years later, he would be dead.
Memories remain fresh and sadness still lingers 50 years after President Kennedy’s Nov. 22, 1963, assassination in Dallas.
“All of that energy was just so exuberant and positive. All of a sudden the whole thing just seemed to shut down. It was so sad,” said retired Lucas County Juvenile Court Judge Andy Devine. “I don’t know what would have been if he had been re-elected and what he would have accomplished.”
Mr. Devine, 91, of Toledo had a prime spot on the stage when Mr. Kennedy spoke at the courthouse in 1960. A representative in the Ohio House, Mr. Devine was running for county commissioner that year so he could be closer to his young family.
He brought some of his campaign supporters to the courthouse stump speech and his Bell & Howell movie camera, which he used to record scenes on that brisk November day.
Mr. Kennedy told the crowd that Ohio was crucial to his victory.
“We are coming to an end in this trip to Toledo. But this state is key. Whoever carries Ohio will carry the United States,” he said, according to a speech transcript from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. “Whoever secures the electoral support of you on Tuesday night, of your collective judgment, you in this state will elect the president of the United States.”
He was wrong, of course. Mr. Kennedy lost Ohio but won the White House and stepped into history as the last presidential candidate to do so without Buckeye State support.
A festive spirit surrounded the courthouse gathering. Big brown balloons, printed with the slogan “Kennedy for President,” dotted the grounds. Bars reportedly did brisk business as the crowd waited for the candidate’s arrival.
He shook many hands — though he gripped gingerly because he was sore from so many campaign stops.
Not everyone enthusiastically greeted him in Toledo. Some hostile signs hung along the motorcade route, and a tomato struck the windshield of his convertible. The tosser was identified as a “sub deb” (a subdebutante is a girl in her middle-teens who is about to become a debutante).
The tomato splattered harmlessly.
“Her timing was off,” Ohio Gov. Michael V. Disalle, a Toledo native who accompanied Mr. Kennedy that day, told the newspaper at the time.
Many more who lined the streets were supporters.
Among them was Leonard Rosenberg of Toledo. Now 60, he was a young boy whose mother was swept up in the Kennedy “Camelot” mystique. He lived near the motorcade route, and his mother took him and his brother to a spot on Bancroft Street to watch the line of cars and the candidate pass by.
“We went down, and I can remember all of Bancroft was lined up as far as you could see,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “It was a big deal.”
Later, at his mother’s urging, he and his brother wrote a letter congratulating Mr. Kennedy on his victory. He received a thank you note dated Dec. 2, 1960, on U.S. Senate stationery signed by John F. Kennedy, though Mr. Rosenberg doubts he was actually the one to sign it.
Mr. Devine recently watched his old footage of Mr. Kennedy’s courthouse campaign speech and froze the frame to identify local politicians or share an anecdote. He paid close attention when Mr. Kennedy started talking, his right arm gesturing emphatically and pointing assuredly in his distinct way.
“I love these pictures. This is typical Kennedy. Watch this ... that gesture, that right hand, and that finger,” Mr. Devine said.
The leader brought a freshness and a youthfulness to American politics that rippled down to local government. Mr. Devine said President Kennedy made him want “to be the best county commissioner ever.”
Mr. Devine’s involvement with the National Association of Counties gave him the chance to meet Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was helping his brother work on an idea for a domestic peace corps to serve the nation’s neediest. President Kennedy championed civil rights, aided the disadvantaged, and had a way “of touching the heart of the poor,” Mr. Devine said.
“He was a very charismatic guy. I mean he energized me and the young people like you can’t believe. We wanted to get involved and change the world,” he said.
A stunned city
Just over three years later, the 1960 Toledo speech made local headlines again when the newspaper recounted the visit and the roaring crowd. This time, President Kennedy’s assassination prompted the recollection.
Schools, government, businesses, and traffic ground to a halt as word of the president’s assassination spread. “Stunned disbelief” enveloped downtown Toledo. On the first floor of the Lion Store, department store clerks and customers gathered around a transistor radio.
An announcer informed listeners the president was dead, and a clerk walked to a display of men’s sweaters, fiddled with the garments, and put her head down and wept.
Stock boys, shoppers, and clerks clustered around an 8-inch television set on the fifth floor of the LaSalle department store.
Women prisoners held in the county jail screamed upon hearing the news and then turned to prayer. About 2,500 people attended a Requiem High Mass at Rosary Cathedral.
Mr. Kennedy visited Toledo once before, in September, 1959, when he was considered a potential contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. He ate lunch at the Commodore Perry Hotel and attended a Democratic rally.
During that trip, he discarded a prepared speech criticizing President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration to instead urge Toledo to support a strong-mayor form of government — a local issue at the time. Mr. Kennedy noted his grandfather served as mayor of Boston.
“A strong mayor, I assure you, not a weak mayor who needed a city manager,” Mr. Kennedy added.
Toledo shares another connection to President Kennedy and his assassination through correspondence left by Foy Kohler, appointed by President Kennedy as ambassador to the Soviet Union.
Mr. Kohler attended the University of Toledo and graduated from Ohio State University. He died in 1990.
The Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections at the University of Toledo has correspondence and other documents from Mr. Kohler’s diplomatic duty. He received scores of letters from Russians expressing sympathy for the death of the American president.
“Allow me to present to you my deep condolences in connection with this irretrievable loss and to express to you my hope that the improvement of Soviet-American relations, toward which President Kennedy had contributed so much, will happily continue,” wrote a Soviet engineer.
Another note, in poetic verse, read: “The lowered flags are keeping silent. The president’s throne has been rocking. A flock of black crows whirls over Washington.”
The collection offers a different perspective on the assassination, said Barbara Floyd, Canaday Center director.
“We all know how we as Americans felt when it happened, but to know that people who were supposedly our most fervent enemies were feeling the same things we were about the death of this handsome, young man with an incredible future in front of him, I think, provides some really unique documentation,” she said.
Many of the letters, as well as a condolence book from the embassy signed by Nikita Khrushchev, are displayed in the center’s exhibit “Letters of Luminaries.” The exhibit runs through July 31.