West Virginia is indelibly linked with John F. Kennedy. It was Kennedy’s victory in the 1960 Primary Election here that propelled him to the presidency. Kennedy spent a month campaigning here to prove that a Catholic could win in a state that was predominantly Protestant.
As the JFK Library said of Kennedy’s campaign in West Virginia, “He won their votes and they won his heart. The people of West Virginia—their kindness and fairness, their grit and determination and patriotism—made their mark on this young candidate and helped to shape the President he would become.”
Kennedy returned to West Virginia on June 20, 1963, 55 years ago today, to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of statehood. An estimated crowd of 10,000 people turned out at the Capitol to mark the state’s birthday and see Kennedy.
It was raining that day, and Charleston Gazette reporter Thomas F. Stafford pointed out that wet weather seemed to accompany Kennedy here. It rained when he appeared in Wheeling the previous October and it rained the night of the 1960 Primary when Kennedy captured 60 percent of the vote, forcing Hubert Humphrey out of the race.
Wrote Stafford, “He (Kennedy) looked thoughtfully at the mass of gaily colored umbrellas and tiered bunting as he stepped to the speaker’s stand, smiled, and said: ‘The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do, and so I’m delighted to be here.’”
That would become a signature description of our state through the years. It captured what Kennedy had come to recognize as the essence of what it means to be a West Virginian. Yes, we have adversity, more than most places in this country, but our pride and perseverance help lift our spirits and propel us forward.
Kennedy spoke only a little over three minutes because of the downpour and he continued on the theme. “It (West Virginia) has known sunshine and rain in 100 years, but I know of no state—and I know this state well—whose people feel more strongly, who have a greater sense of pride in themselves, their state and their country, than the people of West Virginia.”
The President acknowledged the role West Virginia played in his election. “I would not be where I now am,” he said, “I would not have some of the responsibilities which I now bear, if it had not been for the people of West Virginia.”
Imagine how it must have felt for the folks who were there 55 years ago; this young, tanned and handsome President who ushered in a decade of dramatic change in America, crediting West Virginia for giving him the opportunity.
“I salute West Virginia,” he concluded, “and I join you, and I will carry on Saturday when I go to Europe the proud realization that not only mountaineers, but also Americans, are always free.”
That was June 20, 1963. Five months later Kennedy would be dead, felled by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. Now, 55 years later on West Virginia’s birthday, we remember the mutual affection between Kennedy and the state, and that “The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do.”
Happy Birthday, West Virginia.