Oklahomans Remember The Day President Kennedy Came To Big Cedar
LEFLORE COUNTY, Oklahoma - John Kennedy came to Oklahoma only twice as President: early in 1963, for the funeral of Senator Robert Kerr and 14 months earlier, 52 years ago this week, on October 29, 1961. He came to dedicate a two-lane country highway in a LeFlore County mountain hollow.
The world will remember President Kennedy next month for the way he died a half-century ago, but there are Oklahomans who remember vitality and promise, who saw it up-close and have never forgotten, who recall the day the future seemed filled with possibility, when Camelot was shiny and new.
That day, the President came to Big Cedar.
It took a lot of work to cut a path over the Kiamichi's, a road that opened the way to Broken Bow and Idabel. It brought a great sense of pride to this forgotten corner of Oklahoma.
And one October Sunday, not soon after it was finished, it brought the President of the United States.
The big Army helicopter lumbered over the mountain and touched down in Big Cedar, a country crossroads that was suddenly the center of the world.
Sheila Bolton was there, 13 years old.
"Everyone you talked to was, they were gonna go that day, they were gonna be there, it would be their only chance to ever see a President in person," Bolton said.
John Kennedy had come at the invitation of Senator Robert Kerr. Kerr family lore says the visit was in return for the Senator's vote on a Medicaid bill.
The politics didn't matter to an 11-year-old Martie Wisdom.
"It's something you'll never forget," Wisdom said.
The President climbed aboard a flat-bed trailer and looked out across a field filled with 25,000 people.
"I am proud to come to Oklahoma," he said.
He spoke for six minutes, in a state just 30 years distant from the Dustbowl migration.
"Now, the citizens of Oklahoma stay in Oklahoma. Now, they recognize the opportunities that are to be found in this state," Kennedy proclaimed.
The podium the President stood behind was brand new. A few weeks before, Willard Henson, woodworking teacher at Heavener High School, had pulled aside his top senior and told Stanley Fowler he had a project for him.
"But he told me that I could have someone help me with it. And he suggested Cecil," Fowler said.
Cecil Ollar was a 15-year-old sophomore.
"The magnitude didn't sit on me at the time, but the excitement of it did," Ollar said.
Stanley and Cecil gave that podium their all; perfectly joined ash wood.
And when the President ended his remarks and stepped from behind it, he signed his name to it, then cut a ribbon, stepped back onto the highway and moved along a fence, touching Sheila Bolton's hand.
She told her mother she'd never wash it again.
"I did! I hollered, 'I got him,'" Bolton said.
The President traveled on to Senator Kerr's ranch in Poteau. There, he was treated to a mock auction of some of Kerr's prized black angus.
Winfred Burden can see him still, the President who took the time to shake every cowboy's hand, and ask each of their names.
"Got my picture in the paper mounted with him. I was the only cowboy in the outfit that got their picture mounted," Burden said.
It's a clipping he carries still, 21 years old on a little gray mare. It's yellowed with age, but brimming with pride.
"I bragged just a little bit about it, you know," Burden said.
Ever-so-briefly, they could all brag, until another presidential trip to Texas, until the 1960's cascaded down upon them.
All those thousands who stood there that day was marked three years after Dallas with a monument, overgrown and forgotten now.
Stanley and Cecil's podium ended up at the Oklahoma History Museum in the capitol city, where we found it stored in the basement. It's still sturdy as the day two teenagers built it with pride, still bearing a signature of the man who came to remind them all they, too, had a place at the national table--that day the President came to Big Cedar.
"I don't ever ride through this road that I don't look and remember," Burden said.