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Kennedy Packs The House

March 2019

As a college sophomore in 1960, I had little interest in politics except that the woman I was dating was a member of the Young Democrats on campus. Democrats at Oregon State College in those days were a rare commodity, so when the presidential campaign got under way, our little group didn’t expect to be much involved.

Imagine our surprise, then, when we were asked by the State Central Committee to help play host to Sen. John F. Kennedy when he made a campaign speech in Corvallis. I knew nothing about campaigns or electioneering, so I was given grunt work: nailing up posters, running errands, and stuffing envelopes.

On the day of Kennedy’s arrival, I was relegated to helping set up the ballroom of the Benton Hotel in Corvallis, where the senator was to make his speech. We worked hard to spruce up the hotel’s grand ballroom with the best red, white, and blue political trappings. I had just stepped back from hanging the last piece of bunting when someone asked me to drive two other young Democrats out to the airport to greet Kennedy’s front man, who for this event was his brother Ted.

When Ted Kennedy got off the plane, he looked at the three of us and said, “How many of you are here?” I thought he meant Young Democrats, so I said there were two more of us back at the hotel. For a moment I thought he would get back on the plane and go home, but after we explained that we hoped to turn out a big crowd, he came with us.

At the hotel Ted Kennedy surveyed our lavishly decorated but cavernous ballroom and asked how many people we thought would turn out. The Central Committee folks said they hoped for fifty or sixty and explained that Corvallis was “pretty Republican.”

Kennedy said that nothing looked worse than a poor turnout and made a decision: we would move the reception into the hallway outside the ballroom. It was a large hallway, but to my mind it was not big enough to hold fifty people plus the news media. I blurted out that there wouldn’t be enough room for everyone. Ted Kennedy looked at me. “I know,” he said.

This was all beyond me, but I pitched in to move the tables of punch and cookies out into the hallway and tried to string some of the bunting and crepe paper in appropriate places. Then Kennedy gave me an order: Close the ballroom doors, and under no circumstances open them to anyone.

Soon about thirty people had arrived, and then came the traveling press. Kennedy had arranged platforms at one end of the hallway, and he told the reporters that was their best vantage point for pictures.

I watched in awe. The newspeople swarmed onto their platform. Cameras and lighting equipment were much larger in those days, so the press took up a great deal of what I could see was becoming very cramped space. Also, the good citizens of Corvallis now numbered almost seventy-five (exceeding our wildest expectations) and began to overflow onto the sidewalk outside.

When Sen. John F. Kennedy and his entourage arrived, there was barely enough room for them to squeeze into the hallway. The crowd began to applaud, the camera lights came on, and the next President began to work his way through the crowd toward a small dais. As JFK approached my “guard post,” Ted Kennedy introduced me and the other Young Democrats nearby as those who helped organize the event.

I shook the senator’s hand, and he flashed me that incredible smile. “Boy,” he said, “you sure know how to turn out a crowd.” He went on to give his speech and munch on a few cookies, and then he left for his next event. After he was gone, someone remarked that there were almost a hundred people in the hallway.

The next day we all gathered around a television set to see how it was reported. The Corvallis stop didn’t get much coverage on national television, but when the film came on I finally realized why Ted Kennedy had made us leave the auditorium. The commentator said something about an enthusiastic crowd at Corvallis while the film showed what looked like hundreds jamming a large area. Jack Kennedy was right. We had turned out quite a crowd, if not in person, at least on film.