On September 27, 1963, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) gives a speech at Tacoma's Cheney Stadium. Some 25,000 spectators are in attendance, more than twice as many as were expected, to hear the president speak about the environment. Unbeknownst to them, this will be JFK's last visit to Washington state.
Making the Call
President Kennedy's sole visit to Tacoma while in office came from a request by Robert Mortvedt (1903-1991), president of Pacific Lutheran University. Mortvedt, after hearing that Kennedy would be visiting the Pacific Northwest, telephoned Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983) and asked if JFK could address a convocation at Pacific Lutheran University. Mortvedt considered his request to be a long shot, and was surprised when Jackson called back and said yes.
Jackson asked if the convocation could be shared with the University of Puget Sound, and Mortvedt happily agreed. Dr. R. Franklin Thompson (1908-1999), president of the University of Puget Sound, was contacted next and the two educators worked with Senators Jackson and Warren Magnuson (1905-1989) on the specifics. They chose Cheney Stadium as the venue. The three-year-old arena was the only place large enough to handle to the expected crowd.
The Secret Service arrived a few days ahead of the event, to assess the stadium and surrounding area. Besides grandstand seating, folding chairs were brought in from local schools and placed in the infield. The only spot where the Secret Service would now allow visitors was Tightwad Hill, a knoll located outside the stadium, named for the people who watched baseball games from there without a ticket.
On the morning of September 27, the Cheney Stadium gates opened at 9:00 a.m., three hours ahead of the president's arrival. Planners expected at least 12,000 visitors, but as the morning progressed, more than twice as many showed up. Most people had to stand, including students who were released from school early, but not soon enough to get seats.
More than 140 Tacoma and Pierce County police officers assisted the Secret Service in handling security. Most were in uniform, but eight of them wandered through the crowds in street clothes. Some police personnel manned the light towers with binoculars, keeping a sharp eye on the situation.
As the crowds pressed forward, there were problems. Some attendees began pushing and shoving, and bottlenecks formed. Police tried to break up jams where they could, but with little success. Also, it was an uncommonly hot day. Two women fell in the crush, but were pulled aside before they got trampled. One elderly man collapsed in the heat and was taken to an ambulance. He later died.
Waiting for the President
Inside the stadium, last-minute preparations were still being made. Someone pointed out that the president had a habit of leaning on the podium during his speeches, and crews quickly got to work bolting it to the platform, lest he fall forward in the heat of the moment. A backup public address system was brought in to avert a situation that happened to JFK the day before at the Hanford nuclear reservation, when a prankster cut the sound during dedication ceremonies for the N Reactor.
By 11:00, five helicopters carrying the press arrived, and the crowd knew that the president was forthcoming. While they waited, marching bands from local schools entertained the crowds. Local folk singer Beth Pederson sang "He's Got the Whole World in his Hands." An army band from Fort Lewis performed, "Happy Days are Here Again."
At 11:30, the president's plane landed at Sea-Tac Airport. He immediately boarded a helicopter that whisked him to Cheney Stadium, where he arrived at 11:50.
Man Over Nature
Pacific Lutheran University professor Theodore Karl introduced the president as he entered the stadium. Kennedy walked through two lines of university professors on his way to the speaker's platform, as bands from the Fourth Army and the 21st Army played “Hail to the Chief.” The professorial line-up was suggested by the Secret Service as a way to prevent crowds from rushing the president.
After greeting other dignitaries at the platform, Kennedy took a seat between university presidents Thompson and Mortvedt. Dr, Thompson gave the invocation, and University of Puget Sound professor Margaret Myles (1913-2009) sang the national anthem. Afterwards, Governor Albert Rosellini (1910-2011) introduced Senator Jackson, who in turn introduced Senator Magnuson, who introduced the president to a standing ovation.
Kennedy opened his speech with a quip about coming to Washington to see the Tollefson brothers, and how much better it made him feel. Tacoma Mayor Harold M. Tollefson (1908-1985) and Republican Representative Thor C. Tollefson (1901-1982) were both seated on the platform, and Kennedy was referring to the criticism he had received for having other family members in office.
For his speech, Kennedy deviated slightly from the prepared text that had been given to the press. The focus was on the environment and public recreation areas, but Kennedy noted that during his trip throughout the West, he was "more impressed by man," than by nature, "because everything that I have seen, Jackson Hole and all the rest, was given to us by nature, but man did something about it" (Tacoma News Tribune, September 27, 1963).
With Mount Rainier looming behind him, Kennedy urged "the talented and able people of this state make the judgments on recreation and conservation and wise use of our resources now with a long look forward, not for this decade, but for the next generation." He also stressed the need for quality education, and asked "that those of you who are now in school will prepare yourselves to bear the burden of leadership over the next 40 years here in the United States, and make sure that the United States -- which I believe almost alone has maintained watch and ward for freedom -- that the United States meet its responsibility" (The Olympian, September 22, 2013).
His speech was short, lasting only 10 minutes or so, but he received a standing ovation afterward. As he stepped down from the platform, the crowd surged forward, and the president spent 15 minutes shaking hands before boarding his helicopter, which left for a short visit to Tongue Point, Oregon.
Kennedy returned to Sea-Tac at 3:00, and boarded his plane for Redding, California. Many thought they'd see the president in Washington state again during next year's campaign. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.