November 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas. But before the youthful and popular president was killed, he had a long political career that took him all across the United States and the world, including the University of Maryland. President Kennedy took advantage of the large student population and proximity to Washington, D.C., to use Maryland’s campus as a stopping place on his presidential campaign trips in 1959 and 1960.
Kennedy’s first visit took place on April 27, 1959, when the Massachusetts Senator was the featured speaker at the university’s Spring Convocation. After the announcement that Kennedy had accepted President Wilson Elkins’ invitation, his visit was eagerly anticipated by the Diamondback, which published articles about the visit weeks in advance. One editorial praised the upcoming event as a sign of progress for the university and the quality of the speakers who came to visit. “For years Maryland has been criticized for failing to have top-level men speak to the student body,” the editors wrote, “nobody seemed to care. But through creative thinking, and yes, some nerve, Maryland officials are obtaining these people.” (April 23, 1959)
Kennedy was well-received by a crowd of 5,500 students in Cole Field House, where he spoke out against the Student Loyalty Oath that was required for students to receive scholarships from the National Defense Education Act. Some students left the speech feeling disappointed and complained that the Senator should have taken a more forceful stand on segregation or foreign policy. “The general opinion,” the Diamondback commented, “is that this prominent man said nothing, but did it in exceptionally fine taste and manner.” (April 28, 1959) However, other students would later recall that the visit helped galvanize the student body and encouraged them to be more aware of politics. After the convocation, Kennedy reportedly left with several student reporters, giving them a ride back to Washington- in his top-down convertible!
Kennedy would visit the university once more while on the campaign trail in 1960. On May 14, 1960, over 4,000 students greeted the presidential contender on the eve of his victory in the Maryland Democratic primary election. After receiving a standing ovation that lasted over two minutes, Kennedy called for a higher minimum wage, medical aid for the elderly, and increased federal spending on education. After his speech ended, Kennedy left Ritchie Coliseum with a stuffed terrapin, which was presented to him by the state chairman of the Youth for Kennedy organization. Though this was his last visit- Kennedy would never visit Maryland after he was elected president- it was not the end of his relationship with the university.
The University of Maryland Marching Band was selected to play at Kennedy’s inauguration. Braving a snowstorm that almost canceled the entire inaugural parade, the band marched in front of the newly elected president on a cold January day. This marked the third time that the band played in a presidential inauguration, a total that has been raised to five today.
For a campus that was not previously known for being political in the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy’s visits were important events that helped students think more about politics and the government that was right next door in Washington.