Flashback Friday: JFK Brought a Bit of Camelot to Twin Cities 55 Years Ago

October 06, 2017 09:44 AM

A bit of Camelot came to the Twin Cities 55 years ago this week.

And 13-year-old Lynn Brandenburg of St. Paul had a front row seat.


The 1962 mid-term elections were in full swing when President John Kennedy touched down at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport late in the afternoon of Oct. 6 to start a two-day stop in Minnesota stumping for DFL candidates.

A crowd of about 5,000 was on hand to greet him. That included Brandenburg and his friend Jerry Wandschneider, who had walked three miles from their homes in St. Paul hoping to sneak a peek at the president.

"We walked straight out on West 7th Street all the way to the airport," recalled Brandenburg, who now resides in Scandia. "We weren't supposed to, of course. But we were kids and we heard he was coming. We thought we should go see him and see if we could shake his hand.

That mission was accomplished.

"It was a pretty big crowd," Brandenburg said. "There seemed to be some security there. But not a lot. I'm not sure if it wasn't roped off, or if we ran underneath it. But we had a clear view of him.

"He was getting into his limo, I think. And he saw us. He waved us over and we got to shake his hand. Then the officers led us out of there."

Also on hand amidst a host of DFL dignitaries was Don Fraser, then running for Congress in the 5th District. He and his wife Arvonne both got to meet Kennedy as well.

"He was just very charismatic," remembers Arvonne, who still lives with Don in Minneapolis. "He'd look directly at people and he was so friendly. People said he was in a lot of pain (as a result of back issues). But you couldn't tell that. He looked like he enjoyed being around people."

That was proven during the motorcade en route to the Leamington Hotel in Minneapolis. Which is where Kennedy would spend that Saturday night in a suite on the 14th floor.

A crowd estimated at around 100,000 lined the streets to catch a glimpse of him. Twenty-three year-old Marlyn Ferencik and his 19-year-old bride Nancy had just gotten married that afternoon. As Kennedy's motorcade passed 2824 Park Ave., the wedding party stepped outside to watch.

Kennedy stopped to extend his best wishes.

"I shook hands with him for half a block," Nancy told the Minneapolis Tribune in the next day's edition. "He said 'I wish you all the luck in the world. I'm very happy for you.'"

Both Marlyn and Nancy have since passed away, according to Marlyn's second wife Barbara. She married Marlyn after his first marriage ended, and they remained together for 45 years until his death last November.

But if the union Kennedy blessed that day didn't last, the memory did.

"They got to shake (Kennedy's) hand," Barbara Ferencik said. "That's more than I ever got to do."

The main event of Kennedy's visit was an address to a DFL bean feed at the Hippodrome (now known as the Lee and Rose Warner Coliseum) at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds that night. A crowd of 16,000 packed the arena, while 5,000 more gathered in the building next door to listen over loudspeakers.

His address offered support for then Lt. Governor Karl Rolvaag, who was running for governor against incumbent Republican Elmer L. Andersen in what would prove to be a race so close it took months of recounts to determine a winner.

It was not until March of 1963 that Rolvaag's 91-vote victory was certified.

He also made a pitch for the DFL's Congressional candidates, including Fraser who went on to win his election and later served as mayor of Minneapolis.

"He helped Don's campaign a lot," Arvonne Fraser said. "It was a big boost having him here."

Afterward, Kennedy dropped by next door to speak to those who couldn't make it into the Hippodrome.

"This must be the group that didn't send Hubert Humphrey a Christmas present," the president joked, referring to the Minnesota Senator who had been his rival for the Democratic nomination in 1960 and would later serve as vice president.

"Next year, we'll put you all in the other room."

The visit to Minnesota came in perhaps the most turbulent month of Kennedy's presidency, which was cut short by his assassination in Dallas in November of the following year.

His administration days earlier had mobilized the National Guard and other federal personnel to quell unrest caused by the enrollment of the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi.

Less than two weeks later, he would be shown evidence the Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, leading to the two-week standoff known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which nuclear war seemed a very real possibility.

But Arvonne Fraser said you couldn't tell any of that by Kennedy's demeanor in the Twin Cities.

"If he knew there was trouble coming, you wouldn't have known it," she said. "He wouldn't have talked about any of that anyway. He just looked happy to be here campaigning."

Kennedy attended mass at St. Paul Cathedral the following morning. He had then been scheduled to take a helicopter to St. Cloud to speak at a DFL rally at the city's municipal baseball park. It would have been the first visit to the community by a sitting president in its history.

But low cloud cover forced the trip to be scrapped, according to the next day's Tribune. Kennedy instead addressed the rally by telephone from a studio set up at the airport before returning to Washington. And St. Cloud had to wait for its first visit from an incumbent president until George W. Bush made a campaign stop there in 2004.

Back in the Twin Cities though, Kennedy left a lasting impression during his short stay.

"He was the youngest president ever elected and we thought that was pretty cool," Brandenburg said. "And then to be able to say we shook hands with him was just really exciting."


Frank Rajkowski

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