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On a campaign visit Sept. 17, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy greets the crowd at East Carolina College. (Contributed photos)

University historian assesses the significance of JFK visit, 50 years later

By Karen Shugart

The year was 1960. “From Here to Eternity” was screening at the theater downtown, seven years after its initial release. Peanuts grew on the land where Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium would one day stand. No presidential candidate had been to Greenville — or eastern North Carolina, for that matter — since at least 1900. But that was about to change.

John F. Kennedy’s campaign visit to East Carolina College on Sept. 17 would be a watershed moment in the history of the institution that a few years later would be renamed East Carolina University. As university historian John Tucker, describes it, Kennedy’s visit was a formative event for the college and for four men whose fortunes would be in some way tied to one another: new university president Leo Jenkins; Greenville Daily Reflector editor David Whichard III; Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry Sanford; and Kennedy himself.

“Regardless of where you stand politically, it’s important historically,” said Tucker, who is working on a book about the visit and will discuss it in a September lecture at Joyner Library. “Kennedy draws attention to the East and, most importantly for us, he says, ‘What is the real center of the eastern part of the state, where do I go? New Bern? Wilson? Kinston? Goldsboro? No — Greenville.”

Kennedy’s motorcade passes onlookers. Note Christenbury Memorial Gymnasium in the background.

The visit, Tucker said, would help the four men notably. Whichard would get a huge story for his newspaper. Sanford would score points with the rapidly rising Massachusetts senator. Jenkins would make important political connections with every major figure in the state, including U. S. senators and congressmen, as well as the likely new governor, Terry Sanford. These political figures would further ECC’s growth. And Kennedy would make inroads in a Southern state that Democrats were finding they could no longer take for granted.

Democratic presidential candidates usually didn’t campaign hard in the South, where victory was usually assured. But seven weeks from the election, many N.C. voters — overwhelmingly Democratic and Protestant — were on the fence about Kennedy. Many weren’t sure they could cast a ballot for a Roman Catholic from Massachusetts, Tucker said.

North Carolina hadn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since 1928, when the state chose Republican Herbert Hoover over Democratic nominee Al Smith, a Democrat whose nomination marked the first time a Catholic had been a major party’s candidate.

Further complicating matters, Vice President Richard Nixon had decided to campaign in the South, challenging Kennedy in what had been a Democratic stronghold. After Nixon drew enthusiastic crowds in Greensboro, Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, Kennedy felt forced to venture southward. Meanwhile, Sanford, who had broken ranks with other N.C. politicians and endorsed Kennedy over Lyndon B. Johnson — even giving a nominating speech for Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, needed to show his state that he had made the right choice.

“Where in the South would the Democrats go? North Carolina becomes one of the choices — Terry Sanford had stuck his neck out big-time for Kennedy at the convention,” Tucker said. “And Sanford knew that their fortunes were interwoven … He figures the sooner I support him, the more obliged he will be to me, to the state, to my administration and my ultimate success in politics.”

So Greenville it was. Kennedy’s visit became big news, so much so that the planning of the event itself was a top-of-the-fold, front-page story in The Daily Reflector for many days. When the Sept. 17 arrived — just days after Hurricane Donna caused millions in damage and killed at least two people — area residents still lined the streets leading from the airport to the ECC campus.

Kennedy’s motorcade travels down Fifth Street.

Upon landing, Kennedy greeted Joe Butterworth, a Bethel man who had known Kennedy during World War II, where both had served as PT boat commanders. Kennedy then visited Farmer's Warehouse, north of the Tar River, where photographers captured a smiling Kennedy waving a bunch of cured tobacco enthusiastically, surrounded by an excited crowd.

“That was a big hit with the cameramen, with the newspaper people,” Tucker said. “Where else would you get pictures like this? Nowhere. If eastern North Carolina was famous for anything, it was famous for tobacco.”

Once on the East Carolina campus, Kennedy avoided controversial subjects like integration. Instead, he talked about the state’s history and segued into price supports for tobacco. The Daily Reflector put attendance at about 20,000 people. Photos from the day show people holding signs reading “Remember Hoover” and “I am a Baptist and I am for Kennedy.”

Kennedy would go on to carry North Carolina with 52.1 percent of the vote to Nixon’s 47.9 percent. In years since, it’s not that unusual to see presidential or vice presidential candidates stumping for votes in the region — in the 2008 election, three of the four names on the major-party tickets campaigned here. (U.S. Sen. John McCain did not.) In 1960, however, Tucker said, a visit from a major presidential contender was “truly historic, marking the ascent of the college, the city, and the region in virtually every respect.”

“You couldn’t help but hear about it if you grew up here,” he said.

Tucker will give a lecture, “JFK comes to ECC: Fifty Years On,” at the Sept. 23 FaculTea in Joyner Library, conference room 2409, from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Kennedy speaks to the ECC crowd during his visit to campus. Text of the speech presented that day is available at

Speeches are available at the JFK Presidential Library site

Warehouse speech at

ECC College Stadium Speech at

This story appeared originally in the Aug. 27, 2010 issue of Pieces of Eight. An archived version of that issue is available at