Barack Obama’s speech at the Beloit College Field House in February 2008 was only the most recent in a long-time series of campaign stops by future presidents of the United States.
On April 10, 1959, U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts spoke before a capacity crowd at Eaton Chapel. Kennedy was on a swing through Wisconsin months prior to his officially announcing his campaign to become the Democratic Party presidential nominee for the 1960 election.
“Blaring police car sirens heralded the arrival of Senator John F. Kennedy,” wrote a Beloit Daily News reporter. “The Boston strong boy of Democratic politics led an eight car motorcade into this traditionally Republican town Friday afternoon and made it obvious that the 1960 presidential campaign has begun.”
The Round Table reported that Kennedy “urged college seniors to offer to the political arena ‘the benefits of your judgment and good sense.’” Kennedy commented on the interaction between intellectuals and politics in early America and “explained the need for educated people who could comprehend broad areas of knowledge and utilize such abilities in public service.”
After his formal remarks, Kennedy allowed a lengthy question and answer period. One student asked, “What would you have done, if President, in the Little Rock crisis [of 1957]?” Kennedy replied that “it is the basic responsibility of the executive to enforce the laws…and if challenged the executive must bring power to bear,” but he then noted the “adverse effect of the use of paratroopers with bared bayonets upon the south and upon the world.” Another questioner asked him about “a Catholic’s chances for attaining national office.” Kennedy said that it was apparently not an issue in senate elections but that “the issue’s importance in presidential elections was largely an unknown factor and one which would have to be settled at the polls. He stated his hope that Americans would vote for candidates on the basis of personal competency rather than church affiliation.
Commenting about the 1960 election, Kennedy remarked that though “not a sure thing… Democratic prospects are bright, and we can look to the future with some degree of confidence.” First, though, he had to face his competitors, including Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey in the Wisconsin primary held the following April.
The Beloit Daily News featured a front page article about the visit, including a photograph of Kennedy with wife Jackie, Beloit College Dean Ivan Stone and Beloit student Sara Moore, the “recently elected queen of the state Young Democrats.” The Kennedy visit also merited front page treatment by the Round Table as well as an enthusiastic editorial: “If the honorable senator is typical of the rising political leaders of our land, the United States should fare favorably in the troubled years of the future. Even though the Beloit Student body is solidly Republican, Senator John F. Kennedy made a tremendous impression, tousled hair and all.”
On April 23, Kennedy wrote a thank you letter to Beloit College president, Miller Upton and his wife, June. “It was a pleasure to address the student body at Beloit College during my recent visit to Wisconsin. They were a responsive intelligent audience and their questions were very searching.”
Kennedy returned to Beloit on primary day, April 5, 1960, in what he told the Round Table “has been one of the most hectic days of my life.” He began his day with a speech at Mt. Horeb at 8:15 a.m., and then visited nine more towns before arriving at the Beloit YWCA where he spoke “off the cuff for ten minutes” to over 3,500 people after which he raced to Milwaukee for another speech. That day, Kennedy defeated Humphrey 56% to 44% in the Wisconsin primary and of course went on to defeat Republican Richard Nixon in the general election, held Nov. 8.
The photograph is courtesy of Beloit resident Dick Dunagan, who recently donated several photographs of Kennedy’s visit to the Archives.