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JFK’s Utah visits chronicled on Web

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With two words, a single sign captured the profound impact President John F. Kennedy had on the 125,000 Utahns who energetically lined Salt Lake City's streets for his visit in September 1963.

The plea was simple. "Come back."

"Don't worry," a smiling Kennedy said. "I will."

That promise would be lost to tragic history. Exactly eight weeks later — and 45 years ago today — JFK was dead, shot on a street in Dallas while he sat in the back of the same open limousine that had carried him through the streets of Salt Lake.

Now nearly 400 photographs of Kennedy's five Utah visits — covering his days as a Massachusetts senator to those as a presidential candidate to the presidency of the United States — have been retrieved from the Deseret News archives and digitized by amateur historian Ron Fox.

For the first time, these pictures are available for viewing online beginning next week at deseretnews.com.

Most of the images were never published and have not been seen by anyone since the photographers wrapped the rolls of negatives in now-petrified rubber bands for storage.

Deseret News photographers clearly captured the faces of literally thousands of Utahns of all ages — including hundreds of schoolchildren for whom the event was a better history lesson than they could receive in school — who stood on the parade route in 1963. Hundreds more are plainly visible in the crowds that overwhelmed the LDS Tabernacle on Temple Square on both occasions Kennedy spoke there.

"People are going to see their uncles, their aunts, their mothers and fathers and themselves," Fox said. "These images make history come alive."

The black-and-white photographs are packed with history, said Oscar McConkie, who served as Kennedy's Utah point man during his 1960 presidential campaign. McConkie appears in some of the photos and helped the Deseret News identify others.

The photographs captured the fond relationship Kennedy shared with David O. McKay, then president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In one image, Kennedy and McKay are belly laughing with their heads thrown back. There are a handful of stunning shots of Jacqueline Kennedy, just 28 when she joined JFK in Salt Lake in 1959.

And there are smiling men in the more formal dress of the time, white shirts and ties and slacks; fawning women, all smiles in dresses and hats; and children sitting on the roofs of cars and perched atop their fathers' shoulders.

"I'm fascinated by these photos," McConkie said. "President Kennedy was a brilliant young man, a wonderful inspiration. He was a great speaker. I was enamored of (President-elect Barack) Obama, I think, because it was the first time I had seen someone with that command of the English language since Kennedy.

"President Kennedy had a sense of new inspiration to move us ahead, not unlike the sense of Obama now. It was new and exciting."

McConkie recalled a long discussion in 1960 between Kennedy and President McKay about how creating a larger middle class in developing countries could help democratize the world. Afterward, Kennedy turned to McConkie and said, "There is the ideal religious leader for a people."

"I was just tickled," McConkie said. "I knew President McKay well and here we have the president of the United States talking like that about the president of the church."

McConkie also remembered picking up JFK at the airport in his new Ford in the spring of 1960 as Kennedy was battling Stuart Symington for the Democratic nomination. Press secretary Pierre Salinger was smoking a cigar and McConkie didn't want the smoke stinking up the new car.

"President Kennedy said, 'Pierre, why don't you take that cigar over to the Symington camp and pick up a few more Utah votes for us?' He was clever and had a great sense of humor."

Kennedy visited Utah in November 1957 and March 1959 for Democratic fundraisers while he was a senator from Massachusetts. He came as a presidential candidate in January and September 1960, when he promised to return again because President McKay's wife, Emma Ray, had been unable to meet him.

He kept that promise, arriving Sept. 26, 1963, and staying the night at the Hotel Utah. Three thousand met him at the airport. Eight thousand crammed the Tabernacle when he spoke that night, with another 2,500 in the Assembly Hall and 5,000 more on the Temple Square grounds, crowding the Tabernacle doors to listen.

During the parade into the city, Deseret News photographs show Utahns leaning on his car from all sides as he sat up on the top of the back seat. The president shook hands with and waved to men, women and children in horn-rimmed glasses. A sign read, "Welcome Back Jack."

Whenever he left the car, he was enveloped in crushes of people, what the Deseret News called "an ocean of motion." Dozens stood on the ledges along the outer walls of Temple Square to get a better look at Kennedy's motorcade.

"The emotion is what's most important with these types of political events," said Fox, who has worked as an advance man for five presidents. "These photos capture that emotion."

The first time Kennedy spoke at the Tabernacle, in 1960, a Deseret News photograph captured the image of President McKay, behind and to the left of Kennedy. The church leader is leaning so far to his left to get a better look at the president from his padded leather chair that he is nearly in the lap of the man on his own left.

Kennedy concluded both speeches in the Tabernacle with the same line from LDS scripture, section 136 of the Doctrine & Covenants.

"We shall 'go as pioneers ... to a land of peace."'

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com