By James M. Perry
Two months before he was assassinated in Dallas, President John F. Kennedy set off on a five-day, 15-speech tour of 11 states to promote conservation of the country's natural resources.
It was my first presidential trip (Dallas was my second). Everywhere he went, he drew wild, enthusiastic crowds.
Kathy Karpan of Rock Springs, who would one day be Wyoming's secretary of state, was one of about 30,000 people -- one-tenth of Wyoming's population -- who turned out at the Cheyenne airport to see and hear the president.
"In the thousand times I have tried to recall what he looked like," she told the Caspar Star-Tribune. "I remember mostly an impression of health, a deep tan, and his young, full head of hair brushed back by the slight wind, and something more that defies description. He radiated an intense personality, an exciting vitality."
Exactly. We've had our share of charismatic presidents, but, Miss Karpan (above, middle), editor of the University of Wyoming student newspaper, the Branding Iron, that day in 1963, got it just right. Jack Kennedy had an exciting vitality and an intense personality unmatched in American political history.
It was fully on display those five days in September.
A freshman senator, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, proposed the idea. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and Agriculture Secretary Orville Freemen seconded it. Mr. Kennedy, perhaps a little reluctantly -- he was dealing at the time with the Soviet Union and the atom bomb and with the grisly explosion of a bomb in a church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little black girls -- signed on.
His first stop was Milford, Pa., and the home, Grey Towers, of Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt's chief forester and one of the pioneers in the conservation movement. The local paper declared, "For many Milford residents the visit of the president had a storybook flavor. This was something out of the wonderful world of the Brothers Grimm. But the familiar figure of the TV screen and the magazine cover was for real . He was here in their midst ."
Jack Kennedy was not only charismatic. He was storybook romantic.
Just the other day, residents in and around Ashland, Wisconsin, met to celebrate Chequamegon Bay JFK Day, (left) to remember the President's visit with live music and speeches. They were still chuckling at Kennedy's observation that he was only the second president to visit Ashland; Calvin Coolidge was first. Coolidge, the President said, had been silent all his life but he hadn't been able to keep his mouth shut since he arrived.
On top of everything else, Jack Kennedy was good-natured.
We stayed one night at the Jackson Lake Lodge, reopened just for the president, with its magnificent views of the Grand Teton (elevation 13,775 feet). I stepped out on the balcony of my hotel room to take it all in. A big elk was grazing in the meadow just below. I noticed someone else standing on his balcony, taking it all in too. It was Jack Kennedy. I waved, and he shook his head in wonder at what he was seeing, and waved back.
Photos: Caspar Star-Tribune; Ashland Daily Press
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.