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Look Back, Elyria: When JFK came to town

  • John-F-Kennedy-Lorain

    Attorney J. William McCray (left), with John F. Kennedy, then the Democratic presidential nominee on Sept. 27, 1960 at a rally at Lorain's George Daniel Stadium. Originally published in the Chronicle-Telegram Sept. 28, 1960.

    COURTESY/ William McCray family

  • John-F-Kennedy-in-Lorain-County

    Presidential nominee John F. Kennedy during his campaign swing through Lorain County in September 1960. At left is J. Grant Keys, who at the time was the Highway Safety Director for the state of Ohio.

    COURTESY/J. Grant Keys family

  • JFK-and-Unidentified-jpg

    John F. Kennedy (foreground left) with several unidentified men.

    COURTESY/J. Grant Keys family

  • John-F-Kennedy-parade-car-Elyria-Ohio

    Presidential nominee John F. Kennedy waves to the crowd of Elyrians who came out to watch him drive through town. Seated in the car is J. William McCray, the Democratic candidate for Congress in 1960.

    COURTESY/J. William McCray family

  • John-F-Kennedy-We-Like-Jack-house

    J. Grant Keys and his family lived at 824 Middle Avenue, on the Kennedy campaign parade route. Left to right: Patrick Keys; Mary Keys, wife of J. Grant, holding baby Katie; Tim Keys and Tony Keys.

    Jack Glendenning

  • John-F-Kennedy-in-Elyria

    Presidential nominee John F. Kennedy in Elyria on Sept. 27, 1960, following a campaign event in Lorain. J. William McCray, at right, a candidate for U.S. Congress from the district, waved to members of the J. Grant Keys family, who gathered on their front porch at 824 Middle Avenue. Ohio Governor Michael V. DiSalle, seated, second from left, and State Democratic Chairman William Coleman (between Kennedy and McCray) were also in the car.

    Donald J. Ziegman /COURTESYJ. Grant Keys family

  • John-F-Kennedy-in-Elyria-1

    Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy on his campaign swing through Elyria. In the background, far right, is J. William McCray of Elyria, who ran for Congress that year.

    COURTESY/J. Grant Keys family

  • 2019-LBE-Kennedy-DiSalle-Letter-jpg

    A letter, written by former Ohio Governor Michael V. DiSalle, confirming that the day before President John F. Kennedy left for his ill-fated trip to Dallas in 1963, he had selected Elyrian J. Grant Keys to be the Ohio chairman of his re-election campaign.

    COURTESY/J. Grant Keys family

  • 2019-LBE-DiSalle-JFK-JGrantKeys-jpg

    Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy with Michael V. DiSalle, 60th Governor of Ohio, left, and J. Grant Keys of Elyria. Keys served three terms as mayor of Elyria in the 1950s and was the Lorain County Treasurer from 1963 to 1989. Undated photo.

    COURTESY/J. Grant Keys family

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Of all my memories of childhood, my father enthusiastically lifting me above his head to ride on his shoulders, then running out the door of his hardware store on Middle Avenue is among the most vivid.

The reason for his sudden eagerness to be outdoors on a work day had nothing to do with the weather, although the National Weather Service did record a high of 72-degrees on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 1960. My father wanted to take me outside on this warm autumn afternoon because history, in the name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was going to drive by.

The Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy

Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, Reverend Clergy, fellow citizens: We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning—signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge—and more. …

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge—to convert our good words into good deeds—in a new alliance for progress—to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.

To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support—to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective—to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak—and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.

Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.…

So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms—and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.

Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to “undo the heavy burdens . . . (and) let the oppressed go free.”…

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need—not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.…

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.

The Democratic Senator from Massachusetts and presidential nominee — with his charisma, matinée idol good looks and glamorous young family — had captured the imagination of much of the country. Even though I was only 4 at the height of JFK fever, I felt caught up in the excitement of the moment, too.

Kennedy was locked in a close race with Republican Richard M. Nixon. In late September, the election on Nov. 8, was just weeks away. With its 25 electoral college votes, Ohio was an important prize.

I knew nothing of this at the time. All I knew was that a nice-looking man was smiling and waving at us and others outside our store. Plastic straw hats, with Kennedy’s name and picture emblazoned on red, white and blue headbands, were tossed our way, and my father caught one of them. I no longer have it. I wish that I did.

Earlier that Day, in Lorain …

Kennedy spoke at a rally at Lorain’s George Daniel Stadium. Chronicle-Telegram reporter Patricia Mason noted that the stadium was “better than half-filled;” a Democratic official’s estimate put the number at 5,500.

According to the article, Kennedy viewed the race as a “contest between two parties.” The Democrats, he said, have the vision, vigor, enthusiasm and foresight to “meet the problems we face and maintain our freedom, too.”

In those days, America and the Soviet Union — two nuclear superpowers — were locked in a tense, ideological Cold War battle. The threat of communism was, Kennedy said in the speech, “a great danger that is striving relentlessly to destroy us.”

“The question is,” Kennedy declared, “not only are we stronger than communism right now, but also will we be stronger than the communists in 1970? And in 1980? We need not only be concerned for our security now, but for our children. We can’t possibly miss—can’t possibly fail, if we maintain our freedom.”

Heading to Elyria

Kennedy and his group lunched at the Lorain Moose Club after the rally, then, reported the Chronicle, “proceeded through Lorain and Elyria streets lined with spectators estimated at 20,000. Some were just curious, but most cheered and many carried signs, handmade and otherwise.”

JFK’s caravan consisted of police and sheriff cruiser escorts—a half dozen cars, including some convertibles, and three buses carrying campaign staff personnel, magazine, newspaper, radio and television reporters. They passed through South Lorain a few minutes after 3 p.m., then “breezed through Elyria at 30 miles per hour … There was a fair-sized crowd in the Ely Park section of Middle Ave., swelled substantially by high school students who were on their way home.”

At the age of 4, I knew nothing about the people who accompanied Kennedy on his whirlwind trip through Elyria. I did not know that the man smiling next to Kennedy in his campaign convertible was J. William (Bill) McCray, an Elyria attorney running as the Democratic candidate for the 13th Congressional District. (He did not win.)

Nor did I know that our governor was Michael V. DiSalle, and that he and Ohio Highway Safety Director J. Grant Keys, Elyria’s former mayor, were often at Kennedy’s side; both of them were present that September day.

Peggy McCray, Bill McCray’s widow, is 88 today and living in a senior community in Avon. With the help of her daughter, Kim McCray LeMaster, I interviewed her by email.

“My mom has always said, and confirmed this morning, that (Kennedy’s) presence ‘took her breath away.’” Kim wrote in an email on Sunday, Jan. 13. “She said there was such a hush over the George Daniel Stadium when he entered. She said he was more handsome in person.”

Asked about the most memorable part of the day, Peggy McCray replied  that her husband, who died in 2012, told her that the ride from the stadium to Elyria “was intense. JFK’s press secretary handed JFK a sheet of paper … which JFK speed-read—gave back to him—(and) sternly said, ‘I want this changed—I want an answer on that—and I want it now!’”

The 35th President

John F. Kennedy did not win the Ohio on Election Day. It was Richard M. Nixon who won the state and its 25 electoral college votes. But JFK, and not Nixon, won the presidency. It would be the last time that a presidential candidate would win the election without winning the crucial State of Ohio.

Cuyahoga County, Lorain County and Summit County were among the 10 counties that Kennedy did win in Ohio. Of the 82,848 Lorain County citizens who went to the polls that day, 43,487, or slightly more than 52 percent, cast their ballots for JFK.

At 43, Kennedy was the youngest person ever elected. He was the first president born in the 20th century, and the only Catholic, which meant something to my mother and me.

When I think of who was living in the White House during my childhood, I naturally think of Kennedy. I was too young to remember Eisenhower, and for a long time I was too sad about the manner in which Johnson ascended to office to truly accept him as President. It was Kennedy — and the “brief, shining moment” of his Camelot presidency — who represented the golden years of my childhood. Like many baby-boomers, I identified with his daughter, Caroline; she was just a couple of years younger than I. Her baby brother, known as John-John, was born soon after his father was elected president. Having such young children living in that grand house seemed natural and right to a child like me. I loved hearing about Caroline, and seeing pictures of her in “LIFE Magazine” with her pony, “Macaroni.” I played with Caroline Kennedy paper dolls. I had a child-sized Kennedy rocking chair. And somewhere in our house was that plastic straw hat.

The time it took me to tend to the business of being a child eventually led me to stop paying as much attention to the occupants of the White House. I might have been aware of tension and worry in our home in October of 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, but I can’t say with certainty whether I discerned the difference between worry about daily-life and worry about the world-at-large. I do remember that the television was tuned to the news more than usual, and that the President seemed to be talking to us through our television set quite often, but I had no idea what any of it was about. I was 6 years old.

I was in the second grade on November 22, 1963, when I was forced to pay attention again.

Our principal, Sister Mary Vaune, interrupted our lessons that afternoon to announce that President Kennedy had been shot. She asked us to pray for him.

Before we were dismissed for the day she addressed us once more. She told us that the President had died. He was 46 years old.

The first thing I saw when I got home after school was my mother, crying while she prepared dinner.

What Might Have Been

Peggy McCray’s reaction to JFK’s assassination “was one of utter disbelief.” 

“She was very pregnant with me (I came a week later), daughter Kim McCray LeMaster recalled. “My brother was home sick from school that day and she was riveted to the TV waiting for someone to say it did not happen. The following Sunday they went to church and it was packed.”

Katie Keys is the tenth of Mary and J. Grant Keys’s 12 children. She was an infant when JFK came to town. She told me that her father — who served on the security detail for Kennedy’s inauguration 58 years ago — would have had a rather different career had Kennedy not been assassinated.

Kennedy wanted Grant Keys to serve as the Ohio chair of his re-election campaign. The final plans for the campaign were being worked through on the day that the President was shot in Dallas, and so the request never came.

Katie Keys shared a letter that her godfather, former Ohio Governor Michael V. DiSalle, sent to her parents. “It [chairing Ohio] was something I had wanted for you for a long time,” DiSalle wrote on Jan. 17, 1969. “It is unfortunate that it got caught up in that tragedy.”

Instead, Grant Keys was appointed Lorain County Treasurer in 1963, an office he successfully held on to through campaign after campaign for nearly 25 years. According to his daughter, when Grant Keys retired in 1986, the Lorain County Administration Building, which was built in 1974, was renamed in his honor.

There’s not enough space in this article for an in-depth review of other might-have-beens: whether the War in Vietnam might have played out differently, for example, and whether fewer lives would have been lost. Whether we would ever have had a Watergate, or the myriad other ways John F. Kennedy might have made a difference — ways that still might be affecting us today.

On the eve of the third anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, the Chronicle’s Russ Davies wrote that while he did not share the same religious faith or political persuasion as the president, he believed “that had JFK lived to have completed his term, he would have been re-elected and eventually would have gone down in history as one of the greatest presidents in our country’s history.”

Kennedy gave countless speeches during his abruptly truncated political career, but on the 58th anniversary of his inauguration, those of us who grew up with Caroline and John-John would do well to remember the one he gave on Jan. 20, 1961, with his famous and oft-quoted exhortation:

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

Watch the JFK inaugural address.

 



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