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JFK at TYS

As one who barely remembers November 22, 1963, I'll be relieved when this awful anniversary is over with. We haven't used the occasion to remember John F. Kennedy's connections to Knoxville. As unlikely as they may seem, there are a few.

First, we have to acknowledge his longtime rivalry/alliance with a former Knoxvillian, UT alum, and former UT football Vol, Sen. Estes Kefauver. In a dramatic Democratic Convention, it was Kefauver, not Kennedy, who got the nod to be Adlai Stevenson's running mate in 1956. By 1957 it probably seemed a booby prize. Kefauver had been expected to be a major contender in 1960, but thought better of it.

Sen. Kennedy came to Knoxville, or at least our airport, at least twice, very early in his presidential campaign in February of 1959, when he came with Jackie and took the grand tour of Oak Ridge's facilities, a tour guided by the laboratory's godfather, Alvin Weinberg himself. He was said to be very interested in atomic power. He spoke to a Rotary Club luncheon in Oak Ridge.

There's no mention of him getting out of the car in Knoxville proper, but he at least rode through, almost certainly down Alcoa Highway and Western Avenue, the main way to get to Oak Ridge before the interstate. On the trip, Knoxville City Councilman Max Friedman asked Kennedy to return soon for the Democrats' Wilson Day Dinner; Kennedy said he'd check with his schedule.

He was supposed to tour TVA's Fort Loudoun Dam, too, on that 1959 trip, but they were running late, and had to cancel. He did have a quick look at the Kingston Steam Plant.

Affirming his support for TVA was probably the main reason Kennedy felt obliged to visit Knoxville. Early in his Senate career, Kennedy had voted against a TVA appropriation and condemned the agency for lending an unfair advantage to Southern textile mills over those in Massachusetts. By the time he ran for president, he said that was all a misunderstanding. (Perhaps ironically, Ronald Reagan, who had harshly condemned TVA early in his political career, made the same about-face, and came to Knoxville in 1980 to tell us how he'd seen the light.)

Beyond supporting it, Kennedy said he wanted to revive TVA, and return it to its idealism of the 1930s and early '40s. He thought it was time to start building dams again.

Kennedy returned to McGhee Tyson in 1960 as the Democratic nominee. This time he was a star.

About 5,000 people came out to the airport, even though it was 11 a.m. on a weekday. He arrived on the plane named for his already-famous little girl, Caroline. Jackie didn't make the second Knoxville trip, but his sister, Eunice, did, as well as his ally Albert Gore Sr.

Some found the crowds disappointing, compared to a visit from General Eisenhower to the same tarmac, eight years ago. Ike had drawn 20,000. But Kennedy arrived at 11 a.m. on a weekday.

The Young High Band played. UT students held signs saying, "Vols Back Jack," paraphrasing the Sinatra campaign song. Women, who composed a large portion of the weekday-morning audience, shouted, "Hi, Jack!"

In a short speech outside, Kennedy found unlikely ways to praise all three of Tennessee's presidents, even Johnson, as men who stood up for principle, even when it wasn't politically advisable, and affirmed his commitment to TVA.

News Sentinel columnist Margaret Ragsdale wrote about his effect on women, perhaps including herself.

"Six men came out of the plane. One woman came out. Screams turned into roars, and there he was!
"He's everything the screams and squeals indicated. His hair is red-gold, and a little bit on the bushy side. His skin is bronze-tan. His teeth--he seems to have as many as Teddy Roosevelt did--are very white and flash as he smiles."

There were other assessments of his hair. According to another reporter, "His brick-brown hair was unhatted."

But for Kennedy the campaigner, it was all for naught. That November, Tennessee, still very much a swing state, swung for Nixon, especially strongly in East Tennessee. The South was divided three ways that year, much of the Deep South favoring Kennedy, with large parts of Mississippi and Alabama going for the states-rights protest candidate, Harry Byrd.

But he kept his promise to TVA, nominating the activist Aubrey "Red" Wagner to the TVA board, then promoting him to chairman. Wagner wanted to build dams again, and he started with one at Tellico. It's possible that we wouldn't have Tellico Dam and Tellico Lake, for better or worse, if not for the fact that John Kennedy was elected president in 1960.

Estes Kefauver was about 14 years older than John Kennedy, but they each died suddenly within weeks of each other. Kefauver died first, in August, 1963, after being suddenly stricken in Congress. Kennedy's last presidential appointment may have been to Kefauver's widow Nancy, who was placed in charge of the new Art in Embassies program.

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