My Brush With President Kennedy

Now that I have a blog I find it a tad frustrating that many old photos I might incorporate into various posts are stuck in a storage facility in another state.  My “encounter” with JFK is one of them.  But along with this event was a first-hand education in Chicago power politics.

President Kennedy made three visits to Chicago while president.  It was one of those visits… 10/19/1962, Columbas Day, that I saw him.  No, this wasn’t a one-on-one meeting.  I was one of hundreds on that expressway overpass bridge, waving frantically… and I am sure he waved back at me.. personally (prove me different).

I was 11 years old at the time and there was some advance notice through our school that President Kennedy would be traveling the Northwest Expressway (re-named almost exactly a year later after the President’s assassination) to the Loop at a certain time.  It was suggested by a teacher or two that maybe us students make a large welcome banner to hang on the bridge railing.  So it was delegated to our school’s Student Council and a large “Welcome Pres. Kennedy” sign was made out of large paper sheets all taped together.  Since there was no school on this Columbus Day it was a natural for us students to make plans for a large number of us to meet on the overpass in advance to set up the sign.

It was decided that the best overpass location would be a rather obscure neighborhood overpass bridge (little traffic and not on a main drag) over by the high school (which I was destined to attend in another 4 years), on Natoma Avenue.

The expressway overpass bridge as it looks today, looking south along Natoma Avenue. We stood along the right side railing (no protection fence barrier and much lower back in 1962).

I recall my mother driving a couple of us kids to the bridge that day.  I seem to recall it was about noontime, the air was cool and crisp, being well into autumn.  When we arrived we saw that the city had already placed horse barracades across the street to detour traffic.  People from the neighborhood were assembling and some welcome signs were already hanging over the railing.  When our sign arrived with another group of fellow students we found a yet empty location somewhere over the median of the expressway below.  Using a combination of string and tape we attached our sign to the hand rail… and then waited.. watching the traffic glide by below us, and checking out the overpasses in the distance and their own signs blowing in the gentle breeze.

Modern version of the orange vehicles used in the 1960's

It was then that a city Streets & Sanitation truck pulled up.  It was one of those big trucks that served as double-duty road repair dump truck and snow plow when the plow was attached.  We referred to them as city ward trucks as they were trucks usually staged at ward locations (a “ward” is similar to a “precinct” in other big cities; it’s an area of the city that’s represented by an alderman on the city council, much like a “congressional district” on the federal level).  In Chicago if you wanted anything done in your neighborhood, like a pothole filled, you contacted your ward captain or alderman and they would send out a ward truck (Streets & San Department) with a couple workers with shovels…. IF your ward was democratic and Mayor Daley (senior) liked the alderman.  If you lived in a republican ward things didn’t move quite so quickly.  Fortunately (or not) our “republican” ward was democratic… and had clout.

As soon as the truck drove up two city workers hopped out, walked over to where all the signs were hanging and began tearing them off… not gently mind you.. but ripping and pulling.  They ignored the screams of the kids and parental objections.  They moved aside anyone in their way.. not roughly, but with authority.  Once all the signs were removed (and just left in pieces all over the ground) they took out of the back of the truck a huge printed up city banner that seemed to skirt half the bridge that said “Chicago Welcomes President Kennedy!”.

JFK and The Dear Leader, Mayor Daley.

If you’ve ever seen the movie, Mr. Smith Goes To Washinton, with Jimmy Stewart, you might recall the scene where the boys back home had printed up that newpaper-flyer in support of Senator Smith trying to fight the state political machine in Congress.  The scene showed the kids distributing their publication all over… and then the political “toughs” would come along, pushing the kids aside and taking their papers.  That is what the scene on our bridge reminded me of.. power politics.  Except in our case we weren’t protesting the President with anti-whatever banners.  In retrospect I would guess Mayor Daley wanted there to be no doubt about welcoming the President as they were buddies.  To us kids it was a valuable lesson in politics.

When the city workers drove off I recall the adults telling the kids not to worry about it, that President Kennedy will feel welcomed just the same if you waved at him.  And that’s what we did.  As his motorcade came into view in the distance we heard the cheers from the overpass next to us as he drove under it.. and then it was our turn.  He was standing in his limo as he passed.. waving directly at ME (at me, no one else was there… well, that’s what I was imagining).  I snapped a picture… it’s around here somewhere, trust me.

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