October 25, 2014

When JFK came to DeKalb 55 years ago

Kennedy spoke at Egyptian Theatre 55 years ago today

Published: Friday, Oct. 24, 2014 11:21 p.m. CDT

(Daily Chronicle file photo)

DeKALB – Before John. F. Kennedy told Americans to ask what they could do for their country, he came to DeKalb with a simple message: America is going soft.

Kennedy delivered this message to nearly 1,600 people at the Elks Club and Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb 55 years ago, on Oct. 25, 1959, as he campaigned for the Democratic nomination for president.

“As a nation, for perhaps a generation or more, we faced a hard, tough course,” Kennedy said. “But also as a nation, the hard facts of the matter are we’re in danger of going physically, mentally, morally and spiritually soft. We are in danger of losing our will to fight, to sacrifice and to endure. We are in danger of forgetting our traditions.”

Kennedy, at the time a 42-year-old senator from Massachusetts, spoke to 300 area Democratic committeemen at the Elks Club. A capacity crowd paid $5 a plate – about $40 now – to attend the luncheon, according to news reports from the time.

Kennedy’s stop in DeKalb was part of a three-day tour of the state and Kennedy’s ultimately successful mission to secure the Democratic nomination for president in the 1960 election. Kennedy would easily win Illinois’ primary in April 1960 before securing the Democratic nomination in July.

Illinois would prove pivotal in Kennedy’s winning the presidency in November, when Kennedy would win the state’s 27 electoral votes by out-polling Republican Richard Nixon by fewer than 9,000 votes out of more than 4.7 million cast. With the win, Kennedy became the youngest man to be elected president and the only Catholic.

DeKalb County, however, went for Nixon.

Although it was widely attended at the time, local Democrats and historians have very few – if any – tales of the pre-presidential 1959 speech in DeKalb.

A recording of the speech survives today because Kennedy’s host, the late Dorothy O’Brien, gave former Daily Chronicle reporter Tom Zeeh an audio cassette of the speech when they spoke in the 1980s. Zeeh said he can’t remember if they talked at length about Kennedy’s 1959 visit, but he knows they must have at least touched on the subject.

“I was taken, so taken, by the whole thing that she gave it to me,” Zeeh said. “What a wonderful gesture.”

O’Brien, who at the time was Democratic Party chairwoman for the northern district of Illinois, introduced Kennedy to a packed house of 1,300 at the Egyptian Theatre. O’Brien joked about one of the country’s leading Democrats coming to a heavily Republican county, suggesting he was worthy of a spot in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about courageous senators.

“I thought that when he indicated he wanted to come to DeKalb, he was writing another chapter for that book,” O’Brien said in her introduction. “For a Democrat so prominent to come to DeKalb County, Illinois, he certainly should be entered in ‘Profiles in Courage.’ ”

Kennedy’s 20-minute speech is reflective of the times, when the Cold War was at its height, and the specter of the Soviet Union and communism was ever-present in political thought.

Kennedy talked of the need for Americans not to accept being second to the moon, of the challenge of making its farms and factories more productive lest it risk being outstripped by the Soviets, and of the need to show the world that a free society was superior to a totalitarian one.

“We are subject to the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest,” Kennedy told the crowd. “And if by the year 2000, we’re not able to demonstrate that our society is fit and theirs is decadent, and that ours is new and young and vital and theirs … is as old as Egypt, then quite obviously we will have failed in our great responsibility of defending freedom in every way in the great 20th century.”

Local historian and Daily Chronicle columnist Barry Schrader said it was common for politicians to visit DeKalb because of Northern Illinois University; former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt gave a lecture Nov. 9, 1959, shortly after Kennedy’s visit. Still, Schrader said, Kennedy’s visit would have raised local Democrats’ hopes in a Republican-dominated county.

“He would be a big vote-getter,” Schrader said.

The visit was a lost part of the Egyptian Theatre’s history until recently, Executive Director Alex Nerad said. The theater doesn’t have any archives from the time, or any photos or memorabilia of the speech, although the staff is trying to collect memorabilia in time for the theater’s 85th anniversary celebration Dec. 10.

“It’s impressive to know,” Nerad said. “I think it shows that we continue to be a way to document the history of the community.”