By David Skolnick
The headline on the front page of The Vindicator exactly 50 years ago today read: “Cheering Crowds Hail Kennedy Here.”
The visit of John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee for president in 1960, is an iconic moment in the Mahoning Valley’s political history.
“It was a terrific experience and one I’ll never forget,” said Harry Meshel of Youngstown, who was the chairman of the Mahoning County chapter of Citizens for Kennedy when JFK came to the Valley on Oct. 9, 1960.
“He was terrific and a great speaker. People in the Mahoning Valley loved him.”
Kennedy delivered speeches that day in downtown Youngstown, Warren and Salem while his motorcade took him through several communities including Vienna, Girard, Niles, Warren, Canfield and Boardman.
Kennedy, who would defeat then-Vice President Richard Nixon, a Republican, in the general election, “was given one of the most spectacular welcomes ever accorded a political leader in eastern Ohio,” read the Oct. 10, 1960, article about the visit, written by Clingan Jackson, the newspaper’s political editor at the time.
For Kennedy’s speech in downtown Youngstown, a platform was built on the second floor of the then-Tod House hotel and restaurant on the city’s Central Square. International Towers now stands at that site.
“They limited the number of people on the stage because they didn’t want anything to happen to it,” said Meshel, who wasn’t permitted on the platform. Meshel would later serve as the Ohio Senate president and minority leader, and as state Democratic chairman.
The crowd packed Market Street between Federal and Boardman streets.
After it ended, the street was filled with “a mass of paper, cigarette butts and campaign literature. It looked like a street cleaner’s nightmare,” according to an Oct. 10, 1960, Vindicator article written by William A. Snyder.
The attendance for the Kennedy rallies was in much dispute at the time.
Kennedy supporters said there were 60,000 in downtown Youngstown.
The Vindicator estimated the number at “very close” to 20,000 “using a scale diagram of the downtown rally area ... from pictures taken from the 8th floor of the Mahoning Bank Bldg.,” now the Huntington Bank building, which is across the street from where Kennedy spoke.
Kennedy supposedly attracted a crowd of 42,000 in Warren, and 10,000 in Salem in addition to thousands of people who lined the streets to watch the motorcade travel through the area.
Among those standing in front of the Tod House was Mike Carney of Campbell, then an unemployed steelworker.
“It was an incredible experience to be there,” Carney said. “There were people hanging off the Man on the Monument [statue in the city’s downtown]. I was a fired up, unemployed young guy. It was a heck of a crowd. It was a great thing to be there. I’ll never forget it. It was a memorable day.”
During his speeches in the Valley, Kennedy “stressed the low operation of steel mills and the loss of American prestige as evidenced by the vote on admission of Red China to the United Nations,” Jackson wrote.
Another headline on the front page of the Oct. 10, 1960, edition of the newspaper about the event read: “Kennedy gets confetti welcome, backers cheer selves hoarse.”
Kennedy’s Valley visit came two days after the famous television debate he had with Nixon.
At the Youngstown speech, Kennedy criticized the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and challenged Nixon to come here to tell people “they never had it so good. Yes, we can do better. Yes, we must move forward.”
Proving that partisan politics existed 50 years ago, Kennedy said, “I’m not downgrading the United States, but the Republican leadership. I do not believe the Republican Party will serve the people.”
Less than a week after the Valley visit, Kennedy landed at the then-Youngstown Airport at 2 a.m. Oct. 15, 1960, where he was greeted by about 3,000 people. He then campaigned in Sharon and New Castle, Pa., in front of large crowds.
Kennedy beat Nixon for the presidency in 1960.
Kennedy lost Ohio, winning majorities in only 10 of the state’s counties, including Mahoning and Trumbull.
But Kennedy won Pennsylvania, obtaining a majority of the vote in Lawrence County, but losing in Mercer County. Kennedy won only 15 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, but won the state’s electoral votes because of victories in most of the state’s population centers.