President Kennedy left his mark on the Fresno region

The Fresno BeeNovember 16, 2013 

On a hot August day in 1962, an estimated 15,000 people made their way to a dusty and virtually deserted corner of the central San Joaquin Valley to see President John F. Kennedy kick off construction of the San Luis dam and reservoir.

Kennedy pushed a dynamite plunger that set off a string of explosions for the dam and reservoir, centerpiece of a water project that would transform the Valley's arid west side into a vast swath of productive agricultural land.

"It is a pleasure for me to come out here and help blow up this Valley in the cause of progress," he said to laughter at the time.

Fifteen months later — and 50 years ago this week — Kennedy was dead, assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald during a trip to Dallas.

INTERACTIVE: Remembering JFK (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

It was devastating for Tom McGurn, a San Joaquin Memorial High School student at the time who not only was a politics and news junkie, but was, like Kennedy, an Irish Catholic. McGurn had earlier come to hear Kennedy speak during a campaign whistle-stop in Fresno, and as president during a Fresno Air Terminal speech.

"We just stood there at first, struck dumb," McGurn told a Fresno Bee reporter at the time. "We couldn't believe it. Everybody is shocked."

Now 67, McGurn recalls Nov. 22, 1963, as "grim." Like so many others, he still knows exactly where he was at the moment he learned of the shooting — taking a test on a Shakespearean play in the period just before lunch.

Former Fresno Mayor Dan Whitehurst — who saw Kennedy speak at the 1962 San Luis groundbreaking — was also a San Joaquin Memorial student and remembers being in third-period English when school leaders delivered the news, classroom by classroom.

During lunch, everyone headed to their cars to listen to the radio, he said, and that's when they learned Kennedy had died.

"It was just stunning, especially at a Catholic school," Whitehurst said. "For Catholics, his election was a big deal."

But for Fresno and the Valley, the Kennedy assassination cut deeper than simply his Catholic religion or his Irish ancestry. Kennedy, it seemed, liked Fresno — or at least considered it important to his election prospects.

And Fresno County returned the favor.

Massachusetts senator made Valley connection

In the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy fought for California, even though this was Vice President Richard Nixon's home state. Kennedy made a race of it, too. The final statewide tally was 50.1% for Nixon and 49.5% for Kennedy. So Nixon took the state's 32 electoral votes.

Fresno County — then solidly Democratic — went strongly for Kennedy, giving him 55% of the vote to Nixon's 44%. Kings, Madera and Merced counties also went for Kennedy, while Tulare and Mariposa counties favored Nixon.

Some of that may be due to Kennedy's attention to the Valley. He visited Fresno three times as a Massachusetts senator while campaigning for the presidency.

The first was an Elks Lodge speech in the fall of 1959 and a stay at the Hotel Californian, then Fresno's plushest hotel.

At the Elks, 400 came to hear Kennedy. The entertainment was provided by singer Vic Damone. And Kennedy, no doubt keenly aware of Valley priorities, already was talking about water and agriculture, all framed in the political world view of the day.

"Russia by 1975 is expected to outproduce us in hydroelectric power," he told a news conference during that visit. "And in 10 or 15 years it plans to outstrip us in agriculture production."

William Whitehurst, Dan's father and a prominent funeral director, was Kennedy's Fresno County campaign chairman in 1960, and he also served as his chauffeur for the 1959 visit.

"My dad drove him around in the brand-new limos from the funeral home," Whitehurst recalled. Afterwards, Whitehurst said his dad put a plaque inside the limousine noting that it was used by Kennedy.

Along for that visit were Kennedy's sisters Patricia and Jean.

Less than four months later, Kennedy was back.

This time, Fresno was the hub of California's Democratic Party. The California Democratic Council's convention was in town, as was every prominent Democrat in the state.

That gathering brought not only Kennedy to town, but also one of his rivals for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination — Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey. Also here was Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr., himself mulling a presidential run.

On that visit — Feb. 12, 1960 — Kennedy was in and out of Fresno in less than seven hours. He again flew in on a private plane, and this time it appears that Kennedy's driver was George Zenovich. He brought along his wife, Kika, who remembers sitting in the car's wide front seat between her husband and Kennedy. This time, Patricia was the only sister with Kennedy.

Zenovich — a former state Assembly member, state senator and appellate court justice who died in September — was one of Kennedy's earliest local supporters.

In 1957, before his political career and when he was a practicing attorney, Zenovich established the first Kennedy for President committee in Fresno County.

After flying in, Kennedy went directly to the Hotel Californian, where he was mobbed by enthusiastic California Democratic Council supporters, according to an account of the visit in The Bee.

From there, he went to the Fresno Memorial Auditorium — today's Veteran's Memorial Auditorium — where he delivered his convention speech, and then headed back to the airport.

The buzz at the time was whether Kennedy would run in California's primary or would defer to Brown. Humphrey boasted that if Kennedy ran in California, he'd whip him.

In the end, both Kennedy and Humphrey conceded the Golden State to Brown, though in those days primaries were not nearly as important as today.

When Kennedy got back to the airport at the end of his visit, Kika Zenovich recalled that he offered a tour of the private plane, which was named Caroline in honor of his daughter.

"There was a stuffed animal," Zenovich said. "He said, 'Caroline wants me to travel with this.' I remember that so well."

That year's Democratic National Convention was held in July in Los Angeles. Kennedy secured the nomination on the convention's third day.

In September, Kennedy began a two-day whistle-stop tour of the Central Valley on a train dubbed the "New Frontier Special." In a stop in Redding on the first day, Kennedy was again honing in on the water issue — and, in a way, foreshadowing his 1962 San Luis visit.

He told the Redding audience the nation must "move ahead with full development of our natural resources, including the extension of the Central Valley Project."

The tour's second day featured stops in Stockton, Modesto, Turlock, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Tulare and Bakersfield.

By the time Kennedy reached Fresno, the weather was less than ideal. Kennedy noted as much: "There is a chance that the farmers of this valley who grow raisins could lose in one day $50 million," he said. "It indicates as nothing else does why I think it is important that this country concern itself with what I conceive to be the number one domestic problem that the United States faces, and that is the decline in agricultural income."

But at this point in the tour, Kennedy was turning his attention to foreign policy in a speech titled "Pathways to Peace." He talked almost exclusively about foreign policy and the then-increasing philosophical battle between the United States and the Soviet Union, between capitalism and communism.

Addressing about 3,500 people — including McGurn, the San Joaquin Memorial student, and several other teenagers who were likely skipping school since it was a Friday — Kennedy said, "the great struggle in foreign policy in the next decade will not take place in western Europe, and will not be directly between the Soviet Union and the United States. The great test will be which system travels better, which system solves the problems of the people of Latin America and Africa and Asia. Does our system have freedom or does the Communist system?"

Traveling with Kennedy at the Fresno stop were Gov. Brown, Zenovich, Rep. B.F. Sisk, and Assembly Member Bert DeLotto.

Whirlwind tour: San Luis, Yosemite, Fresno

All this led to Kennedy's Valley visit while president, on Aug. 18 and 19, 1962. This time, the Valley's mood was electric, and massive crowds greeted the president at each stop — including an unexpectedly large one at Castle Air Force Base near Atwater, where Kennedy landed in Air Force One.

Kennedy was on a quick tour of Midwest and West water projects. He had first stopped in South Dakota and then in Pueblo, Colo., before coming to California.

"The central theme of this trip can be summed up in a single word — water," a written, but undelivered, part of his San Luis speech said. "Water for our farms and cities, water for commerce and recreation, water for power and irrigation."

When Kennedy landed at Castle, no speech had been planned. But after he reviewed troops, he gave an impromptu, four-minute speech and then worked a rope line of attendees, which included family members of those stationed at the air base, which has since been decommissioned.

From Castle, Kennedy took a helicopter to Yosemite National Park.

One family, the Bees, was ready, thanks to their position as entertainment directors for the Yosemite Park & Curry Co., the park's concessionaire. That post made them privy to Kennedy's itinerary, which presented the perfect opportunity to put their children in prime spots for some presidential face time.

Those who came to Yosemite during the summer between 1949 and 1969 may better remember Glenn and Virginia Bee as the Willards. Glenn, a Bay Area musician, adopted Willard as a stage name.

Ron Bee — then 7 and identified in a Fresno Bee article as Ronnie Willard — went with his parents and younger sister to a meadow near the Yosemite Chapel, where the helicopter was scheduled to land.

It is a day Ron Bee, now 58, remembers well. He stood there, holding a bag of Laura Scudder's potato chips, watching "three big choppers land." Kennedy emerged from the one closest to Bee.

"Hiya prez," the young Ron said.

A Fresno Bee account at the time captured the moment. His parents were mortified.

"I told him, 'You don't call the president prez,' " said Virginia Bee, now 94 and living in the Bay Area.

But Kennedy didn't seem to mind. He walked up to Ron Bee and shook his hand.

Kennedy stayed at the Ahwahnee Hotel that night, and Glenn and Virginia Bee prepared for the evening's performance. The centerpiece was Kennedy watching the Yosemite Firefall, a summer ritual that lasted from 1872 until 1968 that involved pushing glowing embers over Glacier Point.

Glenn Bee and his band serenaded the president with the song, "Indian Love Call," which was traditionally sung in Curry Village during the firefall.

"After (the band) finished, the president called down and said, 'Do you fellas always play together in a group?' " Virginia Bee said. (They didn't.) "It was quite a thrilling thing."

Ron Bee and his sister Terry spent their summers growing up in Yosemite until the family moved away in 1969. For Ron Bee, the highlight remains the Kennedy visit.

"I remember it clear as day, like yesterday. We have a signed photograph of my dad singing to the president at my mother's house in Danville on the wall."

Bee grew up to enter academia, and is currently a foreign policy and international security lecturer in San Diego State University's political science department. He also has written four books on the history of nuclear weapons, all of which led him to meet two key Kennedy Cabinet members — Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy.

Massive crowds, and a young 'dignitary'

From Yosemite, Kennedy boarded the helicopter and headed to the Valley's arid west side for the crux of his visit — kicking off construction of the San Luis Reservoir project.

Dan Whitehurst, then 13 and heading into his sophomore year at San Joaquin Memorial, was there. He remembers the first helicopter coming in. When the 15,000 people present realized it was just the press corps, they booed.

Then came Kennedy's helicopter.

"I remember him coming down the ramp," Whitehurst said. "He was the tannest guy out there. I just remember what an impressive-looking guy he was, more so than in TV and pictures."

Whitehurst also remembers the explosive charges that featured colored spots that marked the base of the planned dam.

Said Kennedy during his 12-minute speech: "This is a fast trip, but if it had no other benefit than to permit us to look at this Valley and others like it across the country, where we can see the greenest and richest earth producing the greatest and richest crops in the country, and then a mile away see the same earth, and see it brown and dusty and useless and all because there's water in one place and isn't in another. I know of no better trip for any president or any member of the House or Senate, or indeed any citizen, particularly those of us who live in the East, where water is everywhere, and is a burden, to realize how very precious it is here in the western United States."

From the San Luis Dam site, Kennedy's helicopter headed southeast to the Fresno Air Terminal — now Fresno Yosemite International Airport — where another 10,000 people awaited his arrival. The visit was quick: Kennedy was in at 1:30 p.m. and gone in fewer than 30 minutes.

Gov. Brown and Sisk escorted the president to the speaking platform, where he met 9-year-old Fresno resident Larry Mustachio.

A member of the YMCA father-son Indian Guides, Mustachio presented Kennedy with a "small feather headdress," according to an official presidential record of the day, and invited him to the group's national convention, which was being held in Fresno.

The idea was hatched by Mustachio and his dad, Sal, who decided they would try to present the invitation to Kennedy in person. Clair Engle, then one of California's two senators and a Valley native, gave the group some hope, though there still was uncertainty the plan actually would happen.

It all came together at the last minute. Larry Mustachio made a short speech. Kennedy then bent down and could be heard on the microphone saying "I don't think you could be heard so why don't you say it again for the people." By then, however, Larry was frustrated and couldn't remember the words of the speech.

After Larry finished, he was taken off the stage, but then darted back toward the president, evading Secret Service agents who tried to stop him. As he ran up to Kennedy, he put out his hand. He later told everyone that he had forgotten to tell Kennedy goodbye.

Larry Mustachio grew up to become a world-class runner and earn a scholarship to Seton Hall University. He met his future wife Tina at college, and they married in October 1978.

But while living in Long Island in 1985, Mustachio collapsed suddenly and died after running. He was 31.

Tina Mustachio learned about the meeting with Kennedy not so much from her husband, but from his mother: "He kind of nodded and smiled when he talked about it. He really didn't talk about that kind of stuff."

Still, Tina Mustachio knew: "This was a very special moment in his life."

Greeting the president was Fresno Mayor Arthur Selland. Engel and Rep. Harold T. "Bizz" Johnson were present. Sisk, the Fresno Democrat, was master of ceremonies. The speech was short — less than five minutes.

Early into the speech, Kennedy seemed to get a frog in his throat. Someone brought a glass of water.

"You can't get water like this back East, you know," Kennedy said.

McGurn was at this speech, too, but the news junkie and San Joaquin Memorial student could never get closer than an access road approaching the airport. He could barely see Kennedy reboarding Air Force One — which had been brought down from Castle AFB — and then watch as the president was off around 2 p.m., headed to Los Angeles.

It would be Kennedy's last Valley visit.

'Sense of disbelief'

Whitehurst — who coincidentally was in Dallas last week on business — recalls the aftermath of the assassination, which happened on a Friday.

"Life went into a tailspin that weekend," he said.

McGurn remembers taking his girlfriend to a movie that weekend to get his mind off the assassination. The movie just happened to contain a Jacqueline Kennedy joke, which he said elicited an audible groan in the theater.

Dennis Pollock, a former Fresno Bee reporter, was 18 at the time, recently enlisted in the U.S. Army and stationed in Virginia. He and two fellow soldiers decided to drive to Washington, D.C., and were part of the 250,000 mourners to see the casket in the Capitol rotunda.

Standing in line for hours, Pollock recalls joking with his buddies to "beat the cold" weather gripping Washington. Then they stepped inside the Capitol.

"All of sudden, it just became very quiet," he said. "It was just like stone silence."

A few years earlier, Pollock's father had died, and he remembers a similar feeling as he viewed Kennedy's casket. The difference: Instead of the book at his father's funeral that listed relatives paying their respects, the one for Kennedy listed people from nations all over the world.

Even before they reached Washington, Pollock recalls the scene growing almost surreal as he and his buddies heard on the radio that Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby had shot and killed Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters.

"All that is unfolding as we're going there," he said. "It was a moment, I'll tell you. I will never forget it."

At the time, most American households had just one television, and Whitehurst recalls his whole family huddled around theirs watching for the next several days.

"The country had never shared an experience like that in real time before," he said. "There was that sense of disbelief. This is not what happens in the United States. This happens in other places."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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