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Remembering JFK's visit to Eastern Carolina

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GREENVILLE, N.C. - Fifty years ago today the nation lost a president in dramatic fashion. John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was shot and killed while riding in a parade in Dallas.

Millions mourned his murder then and honored his legacy today, while people from the East reflected on the politician’s first visit to our rural region.

JFK visited Greenville on Sept. 17, 1960 for a historic campaign visit. It marked the first time in the 20th century that a major presidential candidate had visited Eastern North Carolina. Then a Massachusetts senator, he delivered a speech at what was then known as East Carolina College.

"Kennedy was an emerging person at this point, very much so on the national level,” says John Tucker, an ECU historian and book author. “His legendary charisma was a thing that he was in the work of establishing."

Tucker says nearly 12,000 people showed up for his presidential campaign speech at the school's stadium. Among the crowd: Louis Gaylord, who served as the emcee of the rally.

"Oh I thought he was a very convivial, very likable, you could tell he was very erudite…the type of person when he would walk into a room, I suspect he would just take it over," Gaylord recalls.

The 95-year-old says he spent several minutes with JFK as they circled campus in a car to wave at the crowds. He says the candidate asked him to tell him something notable about Greenville.

“I just told him that ECU was one of the fastest growing colleges in the nation and that it had an excellent football team," Gaylord says.

But at the time, Gaylord remembers feeling like JFK was distracted and didn't hear his response. That is until he heard JFK say this in his speech:

"I understand that they have had a most rapid growth and now wish to play in the Southern Conference. I am scheduled in the Southern Conference, too, and find it with some difficulty, and I hope you have success and that I do, also."

Don Edwards was also there that day, at just 7 years old. His father shot one of the home videos archived in ECU’s Joyner Library.

"I distinctly remember him being at the podium and at the college football field,” Edwards says. “It was right beside our house and then I remember the motorcade. I remember it being the greatest happening in the history of Greenville."

Capturing it all on video was WNCT-TV 9 On Your Side. Tucker says he believes we were the only local TV news team there.

Tucker says the campaign stop in our small town meant people here felt a personal connection to the politician – making his assassination just three years later that much harder to comprehend.

"He was part of this campus,” Tucker says. “He was part of our community. He had visited our place and become, in that brief moment, about 90 minutes that he was here in the East, he had become one of us."

Kennedy flew into the Greenville airport and also made stops at the Farmer's Warehouse for a mock tobacco auction.

ECU’s Joyner Library now preserves a copy of the teletype announcing the assassination, and many of the home videos, audio recordings and pictures of the event in its archives.
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