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John F. Kennedy — remembering a friend

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SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. John F. Kennedy was staying in the Hotel Utah in 1960 and running for president when he signed a copy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Profiles in Courage" for Oscar W. McConkie Jr. and his wife, Judy.

"There, how do you like that," Kennedy said as he handed it to Judy.

Judy McConkie looked at the scrawled paragraph and said, "You are the worst penman I have ever seen. You are as bad as Oscar."

On the way down in the elevator, Kennedy said, "Judy, how do you like the fact that your husband is in politics?"

"Oscar enjoys it, and if that's what he wants to do that will be just fine with me," she said. "How does Jackie like it?"

"Just about like you do," Kennedy said.

In 1960, Oscar McConkie was Kennedy's point person for his presidential campaign in Utah. He recently took some time to reminisce about the campaign and about President Kennedy's assassination 47 years ago today.

Oscar also took some time to identify some of the people in the hundreds of photographs in the Deseret News archive. Photo historian Ron Fox has chosen photographs for this story that haven't been seen since the early 1960s.

Judy McConkie remembers that day in November 1963 when she was in her basement cleaning up the boys' bedroom. There was a TV downstairs, but it wasn't on. Her mother and older sister came over to tell her. "I immediately turned on the television and burst into tears." Her oldest son, Oscar McConkie III, came home directly from East High School.

Three years earlier, in 1960, the elder Oscar McConkie took Sen. Kennedy to meet LDS Church President David O. McKay. "And they had, I thought, a significant conversation," Oscar McConkie said. "It wasn't just, 'How are you?' There was substance to it. They were talking about the difficulty in the world of promoting democracy because of the lack of a middle class in the world."

The church president and the future U.S. president hit it off.

As Oscar McConkie and Sen. Kennedy left President McKay's office and walked through the inner lobby in the Church Administration Building, Kennedy turned to Oscar and said, "That man is ideally suited to be a religious leader of his people."

Fifty years later, Oscar McConkie is still pleased by Kennedy's statement about the Mormon leader: "That's pretty good. Kennedy was a good judge of people. That's a great quote. ... And I remember that because I put it down in my journal."

Some time later, Oscar McConkie said he was in Washington, D.C., on a legal matter and thought that maybe, since he was in town anyway, he could visit with the president.

"So I phoned up the White House and said, 'Hey, I'm in town, and I'd like to see the president.' "

The aide told him it was impossible on such short notice, but that night he received a call from the president's office saying President Kennedy had rearranged his schedule.

The next morning at 7 a.m., Oscar McConkie spent an hour talking with President Kennedy. "I had a wonderful time with him."

Then, at 8 a.m., President Kennedy was to sign a major bill and asked Oscar if he would like to join him. The room was crowded with legislators and the media, who watched as the president signed his first name with a pen, looked up and nodded to the chairman of the interior committee of the House who had worked on the bill. The man stood up, walked over, and President Kennedy handed him the pen, Oscar McConkie recalled.

Then he signed his middle initial "F." He nodded to the chairman of the Senate committee who stood up and was given that pen. Kennedy then signed his last name. When he finished, the Secretary of the Interior, Stuart Udall, stood up in anticipation.

"But the President had not nodded to him like he had nodded to the other," Oscar McConkie said. "Stu just assumed and that offended, obviously, the President of the United States. And he turned to me and said, 'Oscar, how would you like a pen?' "

In 1963, only a few weeks before his assassination, President Kennedy spoke in the Tabernacle on Temple Square.

"That was a truly great time for me, because I sat down with Ted Sorenson, his speech writer," Oscar McConkie said of Sorenson, who died on Oct. 31, 2010. "I helped him with that speech. We ended that speech with a great quote from the Doctrine and Covenants."

President Kennedy ended the speech, on foreign policy, by talking about "a command, which Brigham Young heard from the Lord more than a century ago — the command he conveyed to his followers, 'Go as pioneers to a land of peace.' "

After the speech, Oscar McConkie went with President Kennedy immediately to his car. Byron "Whizzer" White, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, also got in the car.

"I was the Utah man," Oscar McConkie said, "and Whizzer White was the Colorado man. And Whizzer was mad. He didn't like it."

In front of the president, White turned to Oscar and mocked, "As the Lord said to Brigham Young." Oscar shot back, "Whizzer, you take care of the gentiles in Colorado, I'll take care of the saints in Utah."

On Nov. 22, 1963, Oscar McConkie was in his law office in downtown Salt Lake City. "Someone came in and said they had just heard it (news of the president's assassination) on the radio.

"I remember I just burst into tears. I can remember just walking out of the office and walking up and down the street, tears streaming down my face. It was terrible. Just terrible," Oscar McConkie said. "People came up on the street that knew me and commiserated. It didn't make any difference if they were Democrats or Republicans, or for or against him. It was a personal calamity to them, I thought."

Later, Oscar McConkie asked Sen. Teddy Kennedy if the family was satisfied with the report on the assassination from the Warren Commission. "He said that it was his judgment, that when everything was settled down, that history would say that the Warren Commission had it just exactly right."

Judy remembered the late President John F. Kennedy as being "very gracious, very warm, a cute sense of humor. ... He liked to joke about Oscar. He like to rag on Oscar. He very much liked Oscar."

And Oscar liked him too.

John F. Kennedy's visits to Utah

Nov. 11, 1957

March 6, 1959

Jan. 30, 1960

Sept. 23, 1960

Sept. 26-27, 1963

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com