Driving Mr. Kennedy: An Oregonian remembers
By BOB WELCH
Of the Eugene Register-Guard
HARRISBURG — Imagine yourself answering the phone back when Barack Obama or George W. Bush was running for president. Would you mind driving the candidate around for the day?
You take him from Valley River Center to the Gateway Mall to the Fifth Street Public Market.
At times, he sits in the front seat with you.
You ask him if he'd mind swinging by your workplace so you could introduce him to the gang.
“Let's do it,” he says.
And can I get a few pictures of you with my wife and kids?
In our days of high tech and high security, it's unimaginable, right?
And yet in April 1960 Bill Kunkle of Harrisburg experienced just that when John F. Kennedy was campaigning in Portland prior to the May 20 Oregon primary election.
“It was a wonderful experience,” says Kunkle, now 88 and sitting at a table scattered with photos from the day. “He wanted to meet ordinary people. He was looking for voters.”
Kunkle was among the World War II veterans that The Register-Guard featured in its 2011 series on the 70-year anniversary of the United States’ involvement in the war.
Now, 50 years after Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, I returned to talk to Kunkle because I remembered him casually mentioning that he'd driven the future president around for a day.
Why him? He's not quite sure.
Kunkle, then 35, was a former police officer who had become an investigator for a Portland insurance agency.
Kennedy, then 42, had announced his candidacy on Jan. 2, 1960.
Kunkle was a Democrat who'd done a bit of volunteering for the local party.
On Feb. 6, Kunkle and his wife Marvel received a telegram from Oregon Congresswoman Edith Green: “Most urgent you attend special meeting (with) Kennedy supporters in dining room Portland International Airport Wednesday Night February 10 at 9:15 p.m.”
Kunkle did so. He met Kennedy.
“Dear Mr. Kunkle,” Kennedy later wrote in the days before computerized mail. “It was indeed good of you to take time out on a pleasant Sunday to visit with me at the Coffee Hour given by the Young Democrats in Portland.”
Later, Green phoned Kunkle. Would he be willing to escort Kennedy on part of the candidate's two-day visit to Oregon on April 23-24?
“I really don't know why they asked me,” he says. “Maybe because I'd been a police officer.”
Nobody asked Kunkle any questions. Nobody searched the car that Kunkle's insurance company loaned him for the day to drive Kennedy around.
“And I don't remember any madhouse at the airport when I picked him up,” says Kunkle.
It was just Kennedy and his campaign manager, 35-year-old Pierre Salinger, the two having arrived on a private Kennedy plane.
Basically, Kunkle drove Kennedy from shopping center to shopping center — and to one high school — so that the candidate could shake hands and make a few remarks. This, remember, was in the days before candidates jockeyed for TV time and Twitter followers.
“I took him by the insurance office of a guy I knew,” says Kunkle. “Then I took him to meet the four or five people in my office.”
The most formal thing about the day was Kennedy's attire: black suit. Beyond that, the mood was decidedly low-key.
When meeting up with Marvel Kunkle and the couple's two sons — Joe, 15 and Jack, 12 — Kennedy happily posed for photos with them. And posed for photos with Kunkle and a few humorously dressed members of a welcoming committee.
Kunkle recalls that Kennedy was staying in a two-story motel in east Portland. “One of those $30-a-night places.”
“Sometimes John would ride up front with me, sometimes Pierre,” says Kunkle. “He wasn't a real talkative man, but we talked about him and the PT boat and me and Pearl Harbor.” (As a Navy medical corpsman, Kunkle worked in a hospital full of sailors burned in the attack.)
But if Kennedy presented himself as an “ordinary Joe,” Kunkle considered him otherwise.
“He had this presence about him. I don't know how to describe. He turned people on — unless they were Republicans. When my wife met him, she was so stunned she forgot her name.”
One woman, says Kunkle, rebuffed Kennedy, saying she wouldn't shake hands with a Catholic.
“But we'd go down the street,” says Kunkle, “and women would swoon.”
The day before he arrived in Portland, Kennedy had visited Eugene, where 2,000 had turned out to hear him speak at South Eugene High School.
Kennedy reminded voters that, though some had suggested he bow out of the race to grease the skids for favorite-son Sen. Wayne Morse of Eugene, he had no intention of doing so.
On May 20, Kennedy (51 percent) won the Oregon primary over Morse (32 percent), Hubert Humphrey (6 percent) and a handful of others that included Lyndon Johnson (4 percent).
In November, Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the closest presidential election since 1916.
Kunkle received a Christmas card from the Kennedys and was invited to the inauguration. He was at a conference in Philadelphia, not far from Washington, D.C., and was eager to go, but his boss would not give him the time off.
Two years later, Kunkle was in a Portland restaurant when he heard of Kennedy's assassination — 50 years ago this Friday — on the radio.
He went home — his office closed — and remembered that day back in April 1960, when the world was more innocent.
“I knew,” he says, “I had been in the presence of greatness. I feel privileged to have been so close.”
Bob Welch is a columnist for the Register-Guard.
Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com