Tuesday, 05 February 2008
The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy
By Nancy Leitz
When we married in 1950, Roy and I lived in an apartment in Philadelphia for two years and then moved to the little town of Darby. It was strictly blue collar and so were we. There was one difference between us and the townfolk though. They were solid Republicans and we were fledgling Democrats.
We had used our very first votes to elect Dwight D. Eisenhower but realized very soon that we were too liberal to be happy with President Eisenhower and, our other choice, Adlai Stevenson, was too cerebral for us. Of course, my parents, being FDR Democrats, loved Stevenson but we needed someone in between.
In 1960, that man came along and he was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He had the popular appeal of Eisenhower and was also very intelligent, being a Harvard-educated United States Senator from Massachusetts. He was young and good looking and smart and had a terrific sense of humor. He was our man!
So, the campaign started and Vice President Richard M. Nixon of California was the Republican nominee by acclamation. In the little town of Darby, Nixon banners and posters were everywhere. We didn't think Senator Kennedy stood much of a chance and that only made us work harder.
My friend, Mary Hewes Schmitt, and I distributed flyers and pamphlets and hoped for the best. Mary had five children and I had four but we did what campaigning we could on behalf of our candidate. It took some gumption to wear a giant Kennedy button on your blouse when you went to Main Street. People stared and remarked that we were on the wrong side, but we ignored their taunts and went on asking people to change their minds and vote for Kennedy.
Election day 1960 came and we were up all night waiting to hear the final results. In the very early hours of the morning Richard Nixon conceded the election and JFK was the president-elect.
Mary and Fred and Roy and I were ecstatic. We couldn't believe it. Kennedy had actually won the election. The New Frontier was the direction our country was going to take. Now came our plan to attend the inauguration the following January. We weren't sure how we were going to do it, but we were sure we were going to do our best to be in Washington on that historic day.
In early December we learned that the Delaware County Democrats were going to plan a trip to the inauguration. They were going to charter part of a Pennsylvania Railroad train and take as many members as wanted to go on the trip. Mary and I were among the first to sign up.
Mary's neighbor, Lil, also was going, but with her own group. The train would leave from Chester, Pennsylvania, in the early morning and arrive in Washington at 10:00AM, in plenty of time for us to reach our assigned seats on the bleachers along the parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue.
On January 19th, the day before the big event, it began to snow and it snowed all evening and into the night. When we awoke in the morning we found about 12 inches of snow and it was still coming down hard. I called Mary and she told me that the train was still running if we could get to the station in Chester about ten miles away.
Roy, who we have always called the "Snow King," leapt into action. He warmed up his 1953 Nash Ambassador, put skid chains over the snow tires and at 6:00AM, we started out for Sharon Hill to pick up Mary. She had walked out to the main street because her street was impassable to cars and watched for us. That was easy, because we were the only car on the road at that hour and in that storm.
After picking Mary, up we proceeded down Chester Pike like a snow plow. That big Nash and Roy's skill as a driver had us going pretty well and then, of all things, a woman was flagging us down in the middle of the Pike. We stopped for her and when she got in our car, we were shocked to see that it was Lil. No one in her group had been brave enough to go out so Lil went alone and it was a good thing we saw her because we didn't even see a police car or anyone else who could have helped her. She was very happy to join us.
It took more than an hour to go that ten miles to Chester, but we made it and the train was waiting in the station for the Delaware County Democrats to board. There was hot coffee and tea aboard and we were so happy to be there and were so excited when that train pulled out of Chester station and we waved goodbye to Roy, who was the only person left standing in the station. Good old Roy!
The train left about 40 minutes late but we still had plenty of time to get to Washington in time for the big event.
When we got to Washington the snow had stopped and the Army had hundreds of trucks out and thousands of soldiers clearing the streets of snow. They were shoveling it into the trucks and dumping it in the Potomac River. One by one the trucks would be filled with snow and then it would be driven to the river. They would drop the snow in the river and return for another load. They did such a good job you would never have known how much snow came down that night and early morning. The streets were all ready and clean for the parade.
We were taken to our headquarters which was a Knights of Columbus Hall near the Capitol and told we would wait there until it was time for the parade and inauguration. The Delaware County Organization had arranged for us to have reserved seats in the stands that were erected along Pennsylvania Avenue.
At the appointed time, we left for the parade and were shown to our viewing stand. It was a very good spot about a block down from the Capitol. We would see the parade but not really see the swearing in ceremony.
When we got settled and the parade was approaching, we noticed that the VIP stands across from the Capitol were mostly empty. Then the Capitol Police came along and urged us to go and fill up those empty seats, which we gladly did. Many of the dignitaries whose seats we were taking had not been able to reach Washington in the storm. We were told that hundreds of flights could not land at National Airport and even ex-president Herbert Hoover had to turn back on his trip from Miami to Washington.
Then came the parade. The President and Mrs. Eisenhower, Vice President and Mrs. Nixon, many dignitaries all dressed in black waist coats and top hats. Marching bands from all over the country, and finally, the thrill of them all, President Elect and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, in a big black open convertible, smiling and waving and happily posing for pictures.
They were such a handsome and beautiful couple. Mary and I couldn't take our eyes off of them as they passed us, but it was a little hard to focus on them through our tears. Here we were, a couple of small town bumpkins with a front-row seat to an historic event that we had helped, in a very small way, to create.
And then that moment that is ingrained in my memory and in the memory of many Americans since. I remember looking across at that scene and seeing our young president, bare headed and handsome, with his hand on the Bible swearing to defend our Constitution and later saying those words which will go down in history as the most remembered words in any presidential speech, past or present.
"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
Who could ever imagine that in less than three years we would be returning to Washington and be standing in Arlington Cemetery. But it was all too true. We were there with tears in our eyes as we looked at an eternal flame, lighted by the beautiful Jackie, and surrounded by a small white picket fence. We were speechless and could think of only one thing to say: God Bless America.