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By Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published September 29 2013

Months before assassination, JFK visited Grand Forks

GRAND FORKS – Jan Boe was 11 years old and sitting in the old University of North Dakota Fieldhouse with her mother, Dorothy, who had brought a camera to record the whirlwind visit of President John F. Kennedy.

“My mom was tall, blond and pretty, and she had on a red suit and spiked heels,” Jan remembers. “Those days everything was a sea of gray and black, with all the topcoats and suits and hats, so she really stuck out.

“She stepped out into the aisle and started taking pictures. Now, my mother couldn’t ever take a straight photograph. I have lots of pictures with prom dates cut off. But when we got those photos back, there was one where President Kennedy was looking straight at her.

“She had the picture enlarged and matted and sent it to the White House, explaining she had been there with me.”

On Nov. 12, 1963, a package came from Washington, D.C. There was a nice note from Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s personal secretary, and the photo Dorothy Boe had taken of the president.

It was signed, “To Jan Boe with best wishes. John Kennedy.”

Boe, 61, lives in Richfield, Minn., now. She remembers how thrilled she was to see the president, how excited she was to get the signed photo – and how devastated she was 10 days later when, back in school, she learned he had been killed.

“The timing of everything … there was an extra sadness,” she said.

As the somber 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination approaches, Grand Forks and UND and people old enough to remember hold on to another memory, a proud and happy memory of the day two months earlier when a buoyant and youthful president dazzled a huge crowd here, including an 11-year-old girl.

“I have the picture hanging in my den,” Boe said. “It’s been up ever since.”

‘Journey to save America’s natural heritage’

“CITY READY TO GREET JFK,” the Grand Forks Herald’s front-page banner headline read the day before, and the story told of how the president would land at Grand Forks Air Force Base and go by helicopter to the UND campus.

He would be accompanied by Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and by Gov. William Guy and Sens. Quentin Burdick, D-N.D., and Mike Mansfield, D-Mont.

Kennedy had called his 10,000-mile trip through 11 Western states “a journey to save America’s natural heritage.”

The next day, Sept. 25, the Herald’s final home edition reported that 10,000 people had jammed the fieldhouse “and there were enough in the area nearby outside to fill it again.”

In his speech, the president quoted a Republican predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt: “It is the moral obligation of society to maintain its natural environment.”

‘We were kids’

Bismarck attorney Tom Dickson, 59, was in the third grade in Gilby, N.D., in 1963. He and his classmates rode a bus to Grand Forks on Sept. 25.

“I can still remember standing on the sidewalk, on a perfectly beautiful fall day, and I remember his car passing,” he said. “We were all taken aback by how handsome he was: the thick red hair, the freckles. We were thinking, ‘Gee, he looks young!’ He didn’t look like Eisenhower.

“You could tell he really was enjoying the day, really enjoying the job. He was so vibrant, so full of life. We were all so energized.

“We loved President Kennedy. You hear the names Washington and Lincoln, and you see the carvings at Mount Rushmore, but here’s an actual person. … We were schoolkids, and he was the president.”

It was difficult, Dickson said, “to reconcile that memory with what happened two months later.”

He remembers Nov. 22, 1963, “like it was yesterday,” he said.

“Our teacher went to the door, and there was whispering, and she turned back to us and she was crying.

“Nobody played outside at recess that day.”

Before Dallas,lighter security

Gary Severson, 66, who retired last year from teaching at John F. Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minn., was 16 when he and a buddy skipped school in Grand Forks to see and hear the president.

Severson said he has researched the Kennedy assassination for years, including accounts that suggest there may have been plots to shoot the president earlier, in late September 1963, and that causes him to wonder about that day in Grand Forks.

“There were already 25,000 people present in the arena and outside around the helicopter landing field when we arrived late on the scene,” he said.

“We made our way unimpeded through the bowels of the arena to where JFK would receive his degree,” an honorary degree bestowed by the university.

“Surprisingly, we were able to find two seats immediately in front of the podium. There was no visible security along our route through parts of a building that housed many other athletic facilities in addition to the main arena.”

Shaking hands, waving

Jackie Jeffrey, who still lives in Grand Forks, recalls walking with her mother along the railroad tracks from their home south of downtown to the UND campus, where they stood behind a wooden snow fence.

She was 12. The president was 46 but “cute,” she thought.

“He was going along the fence, shaking hands,” she said. “He shook my mother’s hand, but not mine.”

Two months later, she was at St. Mary’s grade school when the news came from Dallas.

“The nuns were very upset,” she remembers. “Later, we watched the funeral on black-and-white TV.”

“I was there with my parents,” said Joe Hofer, who grew up in Larimore and lives now in Arizona. “I was 12 years old and will never forget it. We were pretty close to the front when he gave his speech, less than 50 feet.”

The Rev. Tim Bushy said from Oregon that he was a student at St. Michael’s School in September 1963, and JFK’s helicopter circled the church and school.

“We got out on the fire escape and waved,” he said. “It went around the grounds several times. It was a day of excitement for many of us.”

‘It was electric’

Jack McDonald, 73, a Bismarck attorney, was a UND law student who had worked summers for United Press International when the wire service asked him to help its correspondent traveling with Kennedy. He was sent to the air base to call in the moment Kennedy’s plane landed.

“I was able to walk out onto the tarmac,” he said. “Security wasn’t like it is now, and he walked right past me. It was electric, exciting. You could feel the presence. He was joking and laughing.

“Then I raced in and listened to the talk. It was very moving. He really hit the mark with students, talking about the environment.

“When he was done, I jumped on my little scooter to get back to the base before he did so I could report ‘wheels up’ and he was gone.”

McDonald said those images came flooding back when, on Nov. 22, he was again at the UND Fieldhouse, shooting baskets with friends at noon, when someone walked in and said the president had been shot.

Having just seen the man, having just heard him laugh and joke, “It was very hard to comprehend,” he said.