PRESQUE ISLE — It was Sept. 2, 1960. Dwight Eisenhower was president, and two other World War II veterans were facing off for America’s highest office: Republican Vice President Richard Nixon and Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy.
Wednesday is the 60th anniversary of Kennedy’s campaign appearance at Presque Isle’s municipal airport — today Presque Isle International Airport. His scheduled appearance was only 45 minutes, occurring months before he was elected president and became an international icon. Yet, all these decades later, he remains among the most famous figures to ever set foot in Presque Isle or Aroostook County.
Maine was a Republican bastion at the time — the last time it had voted for a Democrat presidential nominee had been in 1912. Yet, in what would be among the closest presidential races by popular vote in history, Kennedy decided to visit several spots in the small state of Maine.
Kennedy also appeared in Portland and Bangor that day, but began in Presque Isle, arriving from Manchester, New Hampshire, at around 2 p.m. Hundreds of onlookers gathered to see a candidate promoting a renewed United States amid a battle of weapons and ideas with the Soviet Union. Many in the crowd were French-Canadians from the St. John Valley, undoubtedly enthusiastic for the potential election of the first Catholic president.
Joe Olore, 88, of Presque Isle was there, helping to decorate the flatbed truck where Kennedy stood to speak. He was proud to see Kennedy, who he briefly met after his speech.
“Kennedy was a person that I really admired,” Olore said. “I wish, in one way, that we had another one.”
Olore said Kennedy projected a vision of American greatness abroad. Olore — who emigrated from Italy in 1947 — noticed the strong feelings Italians had for him when he visited his home country in 1961.
“You could call the Pope names, but don’t say anything bad about Kennedy,” Olore said.
Aroostook County journalism staple Dewey DeWitt, 98, who worked at WAGM-TV and currently broadcasts from WHOU in Houlton, had the chance to interview Kennedy during his appearance.
Even on a list that includes Ted Williams and Margaret Chase Smith, DeWitt said that Kennedy was likely the most famous person he has ever interviewed. But he hardly knew it at the time.
“John Kennedy was just another senator,” DeWitt said. “So, you wouldn’t have the feeling of greatness when you interview him as you would now.”
He said the famously charismatic Kennedy was uncharacteristically stiff and uncordial. DeWitt speculated that his back might have been hurting after the flight from New Hampshire. Kennedy experienced back pain throughout his life and would have several surgeries to address the issue.
A presidential candidate traveling to Aroostook County would seem unusual now. But it wasn’t at the time, DeWitt said. Aroostook County’s population was 106,000 in 1960, making up 11 percent of Maine’s population — that number is about 5 percent today.
Additionally, the expected closeness of the election sent Kennedy to all kinds of cities across the country, DeWitt said.
“The polls had them very, very close,” DeWitt said. “So every small state, including Maine, Rhode Island — was very important.”
Kennedy’s prepared remarks referenced both Aroostook County’s famous potato crop and the presence of the Snark intercontinental cruise missiles at Presque Isle Air Force base.
The rest of his speech emphasized a familiar theme for Kennedy during the 1960 campaign: a better tomorrow for Americans, and the development of a country that other nations could look to over the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Kennedy referred to Aroostook County as being in the “center of the defense structure” of the United States. As the closest U.S. point to Europe, it was widely believed to be among the Soviet Union’s top targets if the Cold War went hot.
Kennedy was not the first, current or future president to venture to Aroostook County. Theodore Roosevelt visited Island Falls multiple times, beginning when he was 19 in 1878. William Howard Taft, by then no longer president, spoke at an opera house in Houlton in 1917.
Richard Nixon came twice, once visiting Presque Isle to campaign for Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964. As president, a refueling stop after visiting the Soviet Union brought his plane to Loring Air Force Base in Limestone in July 1974. Nixon was deeply embroiled in the Watergate scandal at the time and many residents viewed his visit with indifference, according to a New York Times report. He would resign a month later.
Despite Kennedy’s visit, Aroostook County followed the rest of Maine in pulling firmly for Nixon: Nixon received 56 percent of the vote to Kennedy’s 44 percent in The County.