You Met JFK While in College in West Virginia and Then Nobody Believed You

One of the joys of running this site is corresponding with people from Moundsville and all over West Virginia and Appalachia. One of them, 83-year-old Bill Leadmon of Dublin, VA, wrote me with an interesting tale of meeting President Kennedy in 1960. I’m reprinting Bill’s account because I enjoy his brush with history, and the spirit of an age where politics were kinder and gentler, and more fun.

On April 30, 1960 I was an engineering student at West Virginia Institute of Technology in Montgomery, West Virginia.

My long time friend, Larry and I were having coffee and donuts in The Bear’s Den, located on the ground floor of Old Main where students congregated between classes for conversations and snacks before attending the next class. Larry and I had been struggling in Calculus and were pondering how we might have done on the exam we had just taken.

The subject turned to politics. Larry told me that he was a big supporter of Senator Jack Kennedy, who was running for President. He said “Did you know that he was speaking right now at Montgomery High School? Let’s walk over there and see him”.

I said “this could be our chance to meet the future President of the United States. We may never
get an opportunity like this again”. It was a long walk down the steps from Old Main, across the railroad tracks, through town and then to the high school.

We were both excited at this point to have the opportunity to meet such a charismatic person but, sadly, we arrived too late to hear the speech, and everyone was exiting the building as we got there.

We mixed in with the crowd of mostly college students and trying to figure out what to do next.

Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned to my left and discovered that I was face to face with Senator John F. Kennedy.

There was no question as to who he was as he stood out in any crowd. He was well dressed, had the famous sun-tanned face and the sparkly white smile. There he was with hand extended for
a handshake. I was literally shell-shocked and had no idea of what to say. After all, I was only a 21- year-old college student and knew very little about politics.

My next impression was how in the world could he have such a firm handshake after shaking hands with hundreds, maybe thousands of other people. I don’t recall exactly what either of us said but I think I said something like “I feel sure that you are going to be a great President”.

At that moment, I saw a flash from a photographer but had no idea who took a picture. I didn’t even know if they captured that moment of me shaking hands with him. It could have been anybody who took the photo but not many people had a camera with a big flash at that time and it was logical that it was a newspaper photographer. However, no one came forward to interview us or ask for my name.

The encounter was brief, and the Senator moved on into the crowd which was rapidly dissipating. I was left standing there looking at my empty right hand not knowing at the time that I had just met someone who would later become one of the most famous people in American history.

I regret now that I did not have time to introduce my friend Larry. To say that Larry was a
staunch Kennedy supporter would be an understatement. To this day, at age 83, Larry still carries a Kennedy half dollar in his pocket.

West Virginia was a Democratic state at that time. Some were even called Yellow Dog Democrats, meaning that the Democrats could run a Yellow Dog for office, and they would vote for it rather than vote for a Republican.

I often joked that the only Republican I knew was my future mother- in- law. At one time, she was a matron at the county jail, and she worked in every election.

When I started dating her daughter, she used to joke with me about being a Democrat. Once she had a full-sized poster of Richard Nixon hanging from the fireplace mantel for me when I arrived.

To my knowledge there was nothing in the newspaper the following days about Kennedy’s Montgomery speech nor were there any photos. It was said that JFK went to more places in West Virginia than any other candidate so it wasn’t likely that all of them would be covered by the press, so I temporarily forgot about it.

Ten days later, on April 30, Senator Kennedy appeared in Marmet, WV next to the Kroger store where I worked part time while in college. There was a hastily built stage on an empty lot across from the drug store. I happened to be on my lunch break, and I was standing outside with my store manager. We were looking from afar and I asked him if he would walk over with me
to hear the speech. After all, this could be the next president. He showed no interest right away, so I concluded that there was at least one more Republican in the area.

I walked over by myself but was told that Senator Kennedy had a sore throat and was unable to speak at that time. Someone else subbed for him but I did not know who he was, so I left. I
don’t know why I didn’t ask for an autograph or even approach the Senator. He was behind the podium talking to someone and I didn’t want to interrupt his conversation. I walked away,
disappointed and thinking that I truly missed another opportunity.

So now there were two mysteries:

Who took the picture of me and JFK?

Who was the speaker who subbed for JFK at the Marmet location​?

Shortly thereafter, Senator John F. Kennedy, at age 43, was elected to be the youngest president ever elected at that time.

Ironically, I had a third opportunity, not to meet him, but to hear him speak as the President at the WV Capitol. He was to speak in an area just outside the building which was called “The Circle” and the area was limited to only those who had permission to enter. Fortunately, my wife worked for the State Police as a fingerprint technician and their office was just inside the door where the President would be speaking. Consequently, she obtained the permission for us, my mom and dad and her aunt to enter while thousands of others stood outside, far from the podium.

There was a slight rain falling but not enough to prevent the speech. President Kennedy truly stood out amongst the people surrounding him. It was an image I will never forget. When the crowd dissipated after the speech, we all moved to the sidewalk around the corner, and watched the limo drive by as the President waved to the crowd.

On November 22, 1963, I heard the shocking news that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The world was in shock and history had been changed.

In 1966, my wife and I re-located to Indiana, then North Carolina and subsequently, in 1973, to Virginia. During those years, I had no access to the Charleston Gazette Newspaper as
there was no internet, so I had no knowledge of any references to the 1960 events.

I told the story many times thru the years but had nothing to prove it, so few believed it.
After some years passed, the wonderful world of computers, word processors and the internet came into being. I learned how to surf the net like most everybody else and it came to be a
regular thing that I read the Charleston Gazette newspaper to keep up with events from the place where I was born.

It was Nov. 22, 2003, 40 years to the day of the assassination, and there on the front page of the Gazette was the picture of me shaking hands with John F. Kennedy. There were no credits, of course, as no one had asked for my name at the time of the original photo.

I called the newspaper and ordered several copies of the photo. I gave them to my dad, brother and my kids. I also picked up several of the newspapers and still have a copy in my
memorabilia file.

I have done some research in the WV archives since and found that every stop that JFK made in WV during the 1960 campaign is listed. I found the April 20 date and a small image of my photo there as well as the April 30 visit at Marmet.

No one at work believed me, even when they saw the photo, but I have the newspaper and a copy of the photo, and I know it is me and that’s all that counts.

Like many of my stories, it took 40 years for it to come full- circle as I did not know the photo even existed. The second mystery was also resolved while researching this story.

The substitute speaker was Ted Sorenson who later became the speech writer for President Kennedy as well as one of his closest advisers. One could only imagine how history might have played out had President Kennedy lived.

Bill Leadmon

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