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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with William C. Friday, December 3, 1990. Interview L-0147. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

John F. Kennedy's visit to the University of North Carolina

Friday offers an anecdotal account of President John F. Kennedy's Columbus Day visit to the University of North Carolina in 1961. During the event, Kennedy spoke to the gathered crowd of college students, high school students, and community members about education. Friday expresses pride in the warm reception Kennedy received. Moreover, his account is suggestive of the friendly professional relationship he formed with Kennedy thereafter, which paved the way for his involvement on various education task forces for the next two decades.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with William C. Friday, December 3, 1990. Interview L-0147. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

But that set off a line of events which then culminated in an invitation to John Kennedy to come to Chapel Hill to speak on University Day. I believe it was 1961. He accepted. And this event we decided to hold in Kenan Stadium. It's an experience to go through a visit of the President of the United States, where you are the other end of the decision on it. But the first thing that happens is that the Secret Service descends upon you. And the signal corp and everybody else comes with all their entourage. So I decided that the easiest way to handle them was to put them in a space next door where I could keep in touch. And they wouldn't be doing things that I could handle another way, or a better way. It was there that I learned of the thoroughness of this kind of operation. A man named John Campion, who was head of the delegation of agents, at that time. And he had a map of Kenan Stadium. And a literal map of everything about it. The creeks. The ravines. Trees. Seats. And he had to know every single seat design pattern we intended to follow. And he asked meߞwell, they got down here two weeks before the President came. You know, they were here all the time. They just took up residence. And every day they'd come in for a briefing, and they'd say what they'd been doing and then ask a lot of questions. And one morning he asked me, "Was there a drainage ditch that ran the length of Kenan Stadium underground?" And I said, "No. I'm sure there was not." The next morning he came in and said, "Oh yes there is. And we crawled through it all night last night. And we've locked it up." The day before the President came, he called me into the office, and had this big wall map. And he said, "I want to show you this." And he had handful of letters that were all death threats to the President. And up there he showed me where they had armed guards, in every square of seating throughout Kenan Stadium, on both sides. Dozens and dozens of people, under armsߞyou didn't know it, but they were. And he said, "I just wanted to show you this, because you'll be up there standing by President Kennedy, and they might miss. And I wanted you to know what we're doing to protect you, too." Well, Campion and I got into a big discussion about what kind of crowd was coming. I said, "We're going to fill it up." He said, "Oh, no. Never draw that many people." So I said, "Alright John, I'll make a wager with you. Before I get up to start the exercise you walk up to the front of the lectern, to check out and say you're ready from the Secret Service point of view. And if there are 30,000 people in here, you do thisߞthumbs-up. If I looseߞthumbs down." Well, he didn't know that I had called every high school around here. Because I wanted the children to have the experience I had sitting on the corner in Kings' Mountain, thirty years earlier with my brother. So, Lose Grove School, all of them on the way in, I called the Superintendent to tell him he'd be coming by at such-and-such a time, have all your children out if you want to bring them. They did. We invited all the faculty here. And everybody in town. And they filled the place up. It was a glorious day of sunshine. I never will forget, the plan was for the car to drive up at the north end of the stadium. And Chancellor Aycock and I were to be there to welcome him. And then we'd walk the length of the field in a faculty procession. Well, the big limousine rolled up, and Governor Sanford got out, and President Kennedy walked up to me and said, "Happy Columbus Day." October 12 was Columbus Day also. And that meant a lot to him, you know. Well, we get up on the platform and that picture you saw down on my wallߞon the wall down home where he was talking to me. A lot of people asked, you know, "What did he say to you?" Well, I say, "Well, his first question was, 'Who won the game last Saturday?'" And you can see as he stood there and saw all of those people, and he got such a wonderful response. The sunshine was in his face. He began to let the strain dissipate. And he got up and he made a speech on education, which, when Harvard published his papers, they wrote to ask for permission to reprint, he considered one of his finer statements, and it was. When it was all over, on the platform, with Governor Sanford, and Mr. Aycock, and Governor Hodges, and everybody like that was there, that had any connection. We got ready to walk off the stage, and he got down and turned to the right and went out on a predetermined route. And this little kid was standing over to the side there, and he yelled to the President asking for an autograph. And I was walking with Mr. Kennedy, and he said, "Sure." And he reached in his pocket and didn't have a fountain pen, so I took mine out and handed it to him. And just by sure force of habit, he took it and stuck it back in his pocket. And didn't give it back to me. And there was a lady sitting right up there in the stands who witnessed this. Shows you what people will do. She sat down and wrote a letter to the White House saying that he went off with my fountain pen, and he should send it back to me. All of this is written up in a little box sitting in the den of my house. You can see it when you go in there. And I got the cutest letter from President Kennedy, in which he said, he apologized for absconding with this weapon of intellectual freedom.