It was 50 years ago today, January 20, 1961. It was a more simple era - although we all thought we were pretty advanced at the time. It was a time when crew cuts and flat tops were still popular with sports stars like Johnny Unitas, and Roger Maris, and with the men and boys who wanted to be like them.
Most men still wore hats in public. Fedoras in the cool weather, and straw hats between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Professional men, such as doctors and lawyers, as well as bankers, teachers, salesmen, and office workers had never heard of "business casual". Suits and ties were every day apparel for the white collar jobs, and khakis or dark blue work clothes were the regular uniform for the factory workers. Our town was a bustling city of nearly 90,000, with railroad shops, steel mills, nearby oil refineries, and many other heavy industries. According to the World Almanac, it was the largest inland port in the United States in terms of tonnage shipped from the port of Huntington. Lots of moms were of the stay home variety, and the girls all wore dresses to school (except for the day when we had Phys Ed class in the gym, under the strict supervision of Mr. Varney). They wore dresses and skirts, even on the coldest of days - one of which was January 20, 1961.
There was a buzz of excitement in Mrs. Gertrude Stone's fifth grade class at Gallaher Elementary School that cold January day. We were ten year olds at the time, and although former Governor Cecil Underwood's children also went to our school, most of us were totally disconnected from politics at the time. Oh, I was vaguely aware of politics, because both of my grandfathers were what I later learned were Roosevelt "New Dealers". Papaw Stidham had serve three terms in the West Virginia Legislature, and he was actively involved in Logan County, WV politics, and worked as a field representative and lobbyist for the United Mine Workers of America, District 17.
Papaw Adkins had already passed away, but I could vividly remember him chewing on that pipe and talking politics with some of the other old men in the neighborhood. He had been a supervisor for the WPA during the Great Depression, and he was a "yellow dog democrat". In fact, speaking of dogs, at one point during the 30's he had owned a German Shepherd dog, that he and the kids had taught to bark excitedly, when asked the question, "Rex, are you a Democrat?" I can still remember him sitting in his living room, watching President Eisenhower making an address to the nation, broadcast over his old black and white television.
"Look at him!" he would bark out. "Watch him grin! he would growl. You just can't trust him!"
I had regularly heard names of revered men bantered around by my grandfathers. Guys like Estes Keefauver and Adalai Stevenson. It was a shame that Papaw was already gone by the time the young Democrat Senator from Massachusetts, had eked out an extremely close Presidential election win over Eisenhower's shifty eyed Vice President - a guy they called "Tricky Dick" Nixon!
The 1960 Presidential election was one that had caught the fancy of millions of Americans - even us apolitical ten year olds.
Our home state had been a major battleground between two U.S. Senators who were vying for the Democratic nomination for the country's highest office. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota traveled the Mountain State from the Northern Panhandle to the southern coal fields in a campaign bus. Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy covered the state as well. I had seen him shaking hands with workers at the main gate of the International Nickel Company during shift change. He drew huge crowds at a court house rally in Logan, and visited coal mines and small towns and coal camps, flashing that huge smile, pressing the flesh with anyone who would stop and listen. That New England accent with words like "vigga" and "Cubar" sure sounded strange to our ears.
It wasn't often that West Virginia drew that kind of attention during Presidential campaigns - then, or now! Humphrey represented the establishment. He was the "Happy Warrior" who promised a return to the policies of FDR and Harry Truman. Kennedy on the other hand, was a war hero, with a beautiful young wife, a dazzling charisma, and oh yes, he was a Catholic! As strange as it may seem to us now, that was a huge issue in West Virginia in 1961. If elected, would all Presidential decisions have to go through the Vatican, as some of the local preachers warned? If Kennedy could win in heavily protestant West Virginia's May primary, he could win anywhere. And win, he did, which propelled him to the nomination at the Democratic National Conventon in Los Angeles!
I remember watching the televised debates between Kennedy and Vice President Nixon. We were told that this was a throwback to the Lincoln, Douglas debates of a century before. The only difference was, these debates were televised and were viewed by millions of Americans in their own homes. Analysists have observed that those who listened to the debates via radio, believed Nixon to be the winner. However, for those who watched on the flickering black and white television sets, the winnner was Kennedy, hands down. His demeanor was pleasant, his smile was quick and natural, and he looked young and fresh in comparison to the sweating, squirming Nixon, who appeared as though he needed a shave.
The November election was one of the most tightly contested one in American history. In fact, the final results were in doubt, even into the next morning. Finally when the all votes were counted from Cook County, Illinois (Chicago) Nixon conceded defeat, and as Kennedy would later say in his inaugural address, "The torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans".
There were no televisions in school classrooms in those days - at least not in our classrooms at Gallaher. But January 20th was a special day, Inauguration Day, and Mrs. Stone saw it as a wonderful opportunity to bring a civics lesson right into the classroom. One of the parents (it seems like it might have been Mrs. Esposito) brought a large "portable" TV to our class that day. The two dozen or so of us students, sat in quiet anticipation for what Mrs. Stone told us was the opportunity to see a major historical event.
The television picture was grainy at best, but we could make out what was going on when the rabbit ears were placed in just the right position. (anybody out there remember Rabbit Ears? )Seems as though they always created better reception with a piece of aluminum foil wrapped around their tips".
It did seem pretty special with the television in the classroom. Mrs. Stone made certain that we understood this would be a historic event and that we should pay close attention. She said we would remember this day as long as we lived. Well, it's been 50 years, and I still do remember it pretty well.
I remember seeing the dignitaries gathered there on the Capitol's newly constructed Inaugural Platform bundled up against the frigid January elements. I remember him repeating the oath of office, which each of us had learned for an assignment. I remember how the news anchors and commentators talked about the extreme cold, and how the breaths of each speaker were visible in the fog they created while speaking. I remember the great (and very old) poet, Robert Frost, struggling to hold his notes against the cold wind while trying to read the poem that he had written especially for the occasion. I remember the President's inaugural speech.
And I remember THE line - the one that has lived in American political lore for five decades..
"And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."
Simple. Yet profound.
No matter what your political persuasion, this line verbalized a serious truth that brought us to the place we needed to focus on the two views of what it meant to be and American. Should we expect the state to be our total protector and provider? Or rather, should we, as Americans, step up and offer our services to our great land and it's people.
It was a noble goal then, and now, half a century later , it is an attitude that is desperately needed in America.
Think about it...