Fran Lee and her mother-in-law knocked on the door of a room in the Allis Hotel in downtown Wichita expecting to find their husbands inside.
John F. Kennedy opened the door.
The young U.S. senator from Massachusetts had given a speech to the Lees and other state Democrats at the Blue Note Ballroom on South Oliver earlier that evening in 1959 as he courted their support for his presidential bid the next year.
Now he was alone. Their husbands hadn’t arrived yet.
“Come on in,” Kennedy said.
He showed the two women to a large square coffee table. In the middle of the table was the biggest bowl of fruit Lee had ever seen. Kennedy invited the women to have some.
He and each of the women took apples, and the three of them began to chat and munch on the fruit.
“It was very strange,” Lee said. “He talked about Kansas and how important it was that every state support him. We were taken with how personal and charming he was. It just seemed like it was an everyday occurrence for him to sit down and talk to two ladies from Kansas.”
Sometime after midnight, Kennedy went to the Fairland Cafe, an all-night Chinese restaurant on South Broadway, where he ate breakfast and played the pinball machine. Jack Glaves, a Wichita attorney, then a state legislator, was with him at the Fairland. Kennedy, he said, loved playing the pinball machine.
Approaching the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Kansans remembered that he was no stranger to the state or to Wichita. He won over many of those he met.
“I was impressed with him overall as an individual,” Glaves said. “He was a fun guy to be with, easy to talk to. He was a good guy and you had confidence in him.”
On the same two-day swing through Wichita in 1959, Kennedy also held a press conference at the Allis, spoke at a labor union and at Wichita University. He also appeared in Hays, Dodge City and Kansas City.
The following year, on Saturday, Oct. 22, 1960, Kennedy returned to Wichita as the Democratic presidential nominee for a speech at Lawrence Stadium. It was the day after his final nationally televised debate with the Republican nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon, and 17 days before the Nov. 8 election.
Kennedy was scheduled to speak at the stadium at 2:30 p.m., but he arrived in Wichita nearly an hour and half late after speaking in St. Louis and Joplin, Mo. Joplin was his last stop, but the delay was due large crowds at the St. Louis airport, Kennedy’s pilot explained to the Wichita Eagle and Beacon.
Kennedy flew to Wichita in his twin-engine Convair campaign aircraft, named “Caroline” after his daughter. He was greeted by applause and cheers from an estimated 4,000 people at .
Waiting restlessly among them was 11-year-old Rocky Gawthrop, who was with his 13-year-old sister, Betsy, and mother, Carole. Carole Gawthrop was a Catholic and an enthusiastic supporter of the Catholic candidate. She wanted to make sure her kids were on hand to see history. The family had waited for three hours for the opportunity. They were up against a fence separating the crowd from the tarmac when Kennedy came down the stairs from the plane.
“I probably was too young to understand the significance, but I did see him,” Rocky Gawthrop said. “He was very charismatic. That smile. And I can remember him waving to the crowd. I’m glad to this day that she got us to go out there.”
“Based on my mom’s demeanor, this was obviously a pretty significant event in her life, and she wanted to make sure my sister and I got to experience it,” he said.
“She was crushed when he got assassinated,” Gawthrop said. “She cried for three days.”
Most of the airport crowd followed Kennedy to Lawrence Stadium, but about 1,000 people stayed at the airport to get another glimpse of him before he took off for his next stop, Kansas City.
Hundreds of people lined the route of Kennedy’s 15-car motorcade from the airport to the stadium. Kennedy had been scheduled to arrive there at 2:15 p.m. The stadium was about three-quarters filled by 1 p.m. and completely filled by 1:40 p.m. with an estimated 20,000 people, according to the newspaper. They overflowed the grandstands and temporary bleachers, and jammed the outfield. The Eagle and Beacon speculated that it was the largest crowd at a political rally in Kansas.
To entertain the crowd, a band played, and the Wichita University women’s drill team performed. State Treasurer George Hart of Wichita and state Sen. John Potucek of Wellington spoke. The weather was perfect.
Kennedy finally arrived at 3:53 p.m. in a Pontiac convertible and the crowd roared. In the car with him were Judge Frank Theis, a U.S. Senate candidate; Gov. George Docking, who was seeking an unprecedented third term, and William Robinson, a candidate for 4th District congressman.
A temporary stage had been erected between third base and home plate for Kennedy and other Democratic leaders. Docking introduced Kennedy, then Kennedy spoke to the crowd for about 10 minutes without looking at notes.
After acknowledging the other Democrats on the platform, Kennedy opened by saying, “I saw a list of states Mr. Nixon’s headquarters put out, of the states that they had sure, the states that were doubtful, and one or two states that maybe we had, and among the states that they had sure, that they did not have to worry about, was Kansas. I don’t believe it.”
Agriculture was his central theme. Kennedy asked how any farmer in Kansas could support a Republican candidate who planned to continue the policies of Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson. He asked how people who work in the plants in Wichita and small business owners across the state could support a Republican after working through the slowest rate of economic growth since the recession of 1958.
He sounded some of the general themes of his campaign, including his fear that the U.S had fallen behind the Soviet Union in the Cold War and the race for space.
“Can you tell me,” he asked, “how a small businessman who has three times as much chance of going bankrupt this year as he did 10 or 12 years ago, can you tell me how any citizen can vote for a political party and leadership which permits us to be second in space? In danger of being second in missiles? ... And yet a candidate and a party who runs on the slogan ‘We’ve never had it so good.’ ”
“Our power and prestige is not increasing as fast as it must,” he said later in his speech. “We are moving into a period of danger and hazard and opportunity. And unless this country is ready to go to work and move again by four years or eight years, the tide will go out further. This is the moment of decision.”
He lashed out at Nixon’s farm program.
“A Kansas farmer said last week as he was planting his wheat, ‘I hope I break even this year. I need the money.’ I believe we can do better than that,” Kennedy said.
He ended his speech by referring to the state’s history and quoting Abraham Lincoln.
“In 1860, during the election 100 years ago, when this state was torn and when the issues were much the same in a smaller sense as they are today, whether this country could exist half slave and half free, Abraham Lincoln wrote to a friend: ‘I know there is a God and I know He hates injustice. I see the storm coming, and His hand is in it. If He has a place and a part for me, I believe that I am ready,’” Kennedy said.
“Now, 100 years later, we know there is a God and we know He hates injustice, and we see the storm coming. We see His hand in it, but if He has a place and a part for us, I believe that we are ready. Thank you.”
The crowd cheered.
“It was an exciting event,” said Frank Vopat, of Wichita, who was a student at Wichita University at the time. “I remember him in that convertible. He appeared smaller to me than when I saw him on TV.”
“I found him to be just very inspirational. Too bad he couldn’t have served us longer.”
Retired District Judge James Noone, then a delegate to the 1960 Democratic National Convention, recalled Kennedy’s visit as a very satisfying event.
“I was impressed with the crowd at Lawrence Stadium, and their reception was enthusiastic. He made a good impression everywhere he went here. The press thought he did a fine job. Everybody thought he did a fine job when he was here,” Noone said. “He had great charisma, he was a good speaker and a very pleasant appearing man. You talked to him, you liked him. That’s the kind of person he was.”
Fran Lee’s husband, Claude, then a Washburn University law student who was campaigning for Kennedy, sat on the stage behind him. Lee’s father, Mack Lee, was Sedgwick County Democratic Party chairman and helped set up the event.
Lee remembered that the stadium was so crowded nobody could go to the restroom. And even though Kennedy was very late, nobody left.
The wait was worth it, Lee said.
“Who’d have thought a guy from Massachusetts could talk about Kansas farmers? But he did,” Lee said. “It was an excellent speech for Kansans.”
After the speech, Lee jumped into one of the cars that was part of Kennedy’s entourage and rode to the airport to catch the press plane that flew with Kennedy to Kansas City.
Fran Lee, then a first-year teacher and later a host of “Romper Room” on local TV, sat in the stands during the speech, but she managed afterward to shake hands with the man who had shared some fruit with her in the Allis Hotel the previous year.
“He looked at me like he knew me,” she said. “It was a double handshake – he held my hand with both his hands. But the crowd, it was just like a wave, so they got him to the car.”
After leaving the stadium, Kennedy’s car passed a group of Mount Carmel high school girls.
“We thought he was gorgeous,” said Barbara Vopat, then a Mount Carmel freshman who was part of the group.
“We ran out of the stadium ahead of the crowd, and were standing there on a curb and saw his car go by,” said Vopat, who is married to Frank Vopat. “We very timidly waved at him, and he waved back. I thought he was waving just at me, but I’m sure it was a campaign wave.”
When Kennedy had finished his speech, a reporter was able to get a comment from him.
“I don’t think the Republicans ought to take Kansas for granted.” Kennedy said.
Four prominent Republicans trailed Kennedy to Wichita that day billing themselves as the “Truth Squad.”
They included U.S. Interior under-secretary Elmer Bennett, and U.S. senators Kenneth Keating of New York, Roman Hruska of Nebraska, and Prescott Bush of Connecticut, father of future president George H.W. Bush and grandfather of another future president, George W. Bush.
The four men held a press briefing at the Lassen Hotel after Kennedy’s speech. Having missed most of it, they offered their party’s views on the issues of the day, and condemned Kennedy’s.
They even held up an 18-foot long sheet of paper between them purporting to show most of the 331 roll call votes Kennedy had missed in the Senate.
Kennedy lost Sedgwick County to Nixon by 14,614 votes.