Philly went big for JFK

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President John F. Kennedy at Independence Hall on July 4, 1962. Police officer Alphonso Boyer is in the foreground.

In Philadelphia, a heavily Catholic city that overwhelmingly voted for the nation’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy is part of the city’s landscape. There’s JFK Boulevard, JFK Plaza, and there was a JFK Stadium.

But for many in Philadelphia, Kennedy is more than a name on the city’s landmarks.

As the nation marks what would have been his 100th birthday on May 29, Philadelphians recall his visits to the City of Brotherly Love, his political savvy and charisma that turned even Republicans into ardent supporters, and his call to service that still resonates with people whose lives he touched.

Kennedy began his political career as a congressman from Massachusetts, serving there for six years before moving on to the U.S. Senate in 1953. Seven years later, he ran for president against Vice President Richard Nixon.

But even before the presidential campaign, Kennedy was a familiar face in Philadelphia. In 1958, the year he ran for reelection to the Senate, Kennedy received an honorary degree from La Salle College, then an all-male Catholic school whose student body was filled with the descendants of working-class Irish and Italian immigrants.

The college had two demographics Kennedy needed — fellow Roman Catholics and blue-collar workers. Classes were canceled as students were instructed to go to the chapel.

“We were sitting down there waiting to see what would happen,” recalled Brother Gerard Molyneaux, now an emeritus professor at La Salle University who graduated from the college in 1958. “In walks this very tall, handsome, tan guy and he says, ‘Saint John Baptist de La Salle,’ perfectly.”

In his remarks, Kennedy called for the rebuilding of the American education system, a key issue after the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957.

A week before Election Day in 1960, Kennedy returned to the city during a three-day swing through Southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. An estimated 200,000 supporters lined the streets in North Philadelphia as the Kennedy motorcade passed en route to a rally in Levittown.

After the rally, Kennedy stood on the backseat of his convertible, waving and smiling as police kept some 30,000 supporters from pressing too close.

On Election Day, people were already waiting in line to vote when John Rossi, now an emeritus history professor at La Salle, swung open the doors at 300 W. Albanus St., the polling place for the 13th District of the 42nd Ward, which had gone for Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.

Although Rossi was the Republican judge of elections, he and his friends all voted for Kennedy.

“Some of the moderate Catholics that voted for Eisenhower had the chance to vote for a Catholic and they swung over to Kennedy,” he recalled.

That night, more than 500 supporters crowded into the Kennedy campaign’s Center City election headquarters to watch the returns on television. Girls in long swirling dresses, who wore Kennedy hats and pins, danced through the building. Cheers went up each time a state was called for JFK.

The next morning, the Inquirer announced the results in a banner headline: “Kennedy Elected President, Wins City by 326,407.” But while he won Philadelphia in a landslide, he’d only earned Pennsylvania’s 32 electoral votes by a slim 3.32 percent margin over Nixon.

Three years later, on Nov.1, 1963, Philadelphia Mayor James J. Tate wrote a letter to President Kennedy thanking him for his endorsement for reelection. Before signing his name, Tate noted, “I look forward to seeing you again at the Army-Navy game.”

That reunion would never come.

Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, eight days before the game. At Jacqueline Kennedy’s insistence, the game went on, but a week later than planned. Kennedy, a Navy veteran, had never missed the Army-Navy game during his presidency.

More than 100,000 fans filled Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium on Dec. 7. The mood was somber as a combined color guard — nine rows of Navy midshipmen, alternated with nine rows of Army cadets — marched to the 50-yard line. The crowd rose for a moment of silence and then the national anthem.

Just as Kennedy would have wanted it, Navy won, 21-15.

Gavin Lichtenstein is a 2017 graduate of La Salle University, where he was editor of the Collegian, the student newspaper. He will pursue a master’s degree in political communication at American University in the fall.