Fifty years ago this week a helicopter landed in a remote part of the Hanford nuclear reservation and 37,000 people gathered in the desert watched as President John F. Kennedy stepped out in a cloud of dust.
Eight weeks later he would be assassinated as he and the first lady rode in a presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas.
But on Sept. 26, 1963, he stood young, tanned and hatless on a speakers stand by N Reactor.
For 12 minutes he talked about natural resources and nuclear energy, bringing the 1,500 dignitaries who had been assigned to the chairs in the front to their feet.
Then, in a bit of showmanship choreographed by the Washington Public Power Supply System, he waved an “atomic wand” over a Geiger counter. The sound of the counter’s rapid clicking was broadcast over the crowd as the wand’s uranium tip set in motion a clamshell crane. It lifted the first shovelful of dirt to build the steam-power facility that would make N Reactor the world’s largest nuclear power plant.
It was a triumph for Tri-City leaders and Washington’s U.S. senators, who had fought since 1957 to get N Reactor approved for dual use — commercial power generation and the production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
It also was a day that most in the crowd would remember for the rest of their lives.
A SEA OF PAPER HATS
Jeff Curtis, who now lives in Seattle, heard that the president was coming when Scoutmaster Ed O’Claire announced at a troop meeting that the Scouts had been asked to help.
Curtis’s family, Catholic and Democratic, were thrilled that Kennedy was coming, he said.
He was disappointed to be assigned to direct parking, about as far from the speakers platform as was possible. But when the traffic subsided after hours of flagging cars to the left and right, he wandered into the crowd.
The temperature reached 90 degrees that day. As he looked out on the crowd, he saw a sea of triangular hats fashioned from commemorative programs. It looked like “some kind of low budget Water Buffalo Lodge meeting,” he said in an article he wrote for the Richland High School alumni newsletter.
He didn’t stay in the back of the crowd for long. An organizer, spotting his Scout uniform, sent him up front to help usher people assigned to seats.
There he had a close-up view of the president’s visit.
Dust, tumbleweeds and paper hats flew as the president’s helicopter touched down, he said.
After the speeches were done and the president stepped off the platform, Curtis squeezed to the front of the crowd, sticking his left hand between two large men and across a railing toward Kennedy. The president grabbed the back of his hand and shook.
As Kennedy got to the end of the railing, he turned and started back, shaking the hands of people who had moved up to the front. Curtis got a second chance. He shook hands with the president twice, and even said a few words, joking about a news report that day of a pickup that had rammed into the gates of the White House.
The president smiled.
OPENING HANFORD'S SECRET VEIL
It was the first time the general public had been allowed on the Hanford reservation, and they made history just by attending.
Some people went to see the president, but spouses and children piled into family cars for a first look inside the barricades where their relatives went to work each day. Tours of the N Reactor area were offered.
“We were scared of Hanford,” said Jacqueline Britton, of Kennewick, who was nine years old when she visited the nuclear reservation and saw Kennedy in 1963. Children didn’t open their mouths when snow was falling so they wouldn’t catch any radioactive snowflakes, she added.
It was the first time Kathryn Fox, the wife of current Richland Mayor John Fox, had been to Hanford, where her husband worked as an engineer. She didn’t return for nearly five decades. The Department of Energy started public tours of B Reactor in 2010.
It wasn’t so much Hanford she remembers though, as the president.
“One thing that impressed me was he was very handsome and beautifully suntanned,” she said.
Maynard Plahuta, who had just started work as an intern for the Atomic Energy Commission in 1963, said the security forces at Hanford were “as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof.”
The traffic jam was massive as buses and cars drove to the northern end of the sprawling reservation on two-lane roads. They were lined up bumper to bumper for almost 15 miles, according to news reports.
It took nearly four hours for all cars to clear the parking area after Kennedy left, the Herald reported. Some families listened on their car radios to another speech the president gave later that day in Salt Lake City before they had reached Richland.
Organizers had been given just three weeks to prepare. They bulldozed and burned 125 acres for the event, then put in 3,000 feet of water line to run sprinklers over the last week.
It didn’t do much good, people remember now.
An area had been paved for the president’s helicopter, which had flown down from a military base at Moses Lake. But the helicopter still sent up a huge cloud of dust, Plahuta said. People on the speakers stand had to wipe the grit off their foreheads.
So many people asked, cajoled and issued ultimatums to be allowed to sit with the president on the speakers stand that organizers joked they should have the speakers and the audience switch places, the Herald reported.
About 70 people in the crowd required first aid, most because of the heat, and 25 were “stretcher cases,” the Herald reported.
A CRUSH OF POLITICIANS
Father William Sweeney was chosen to give the invocation, standing in front of Kennedy on the platform.
He was a natural choice as a native of Massachusetts and the priest who had traveled into the desert at Hanford to celebrate Mass in a leaky tent each week before as many as 1,000 workers and their families during World War II.
When Kennedy’s helicopter landed, the politicians on the platform ignored a request to stay put and rushed down to meet the president, Sweeney remembered in 1988. But Sweeney hung back, afraid the president would ignore him in the crush of politicians.
He need not have worried. The president spotted his collar, walked across the stage and simply said, “Hello, Father.”
Others on the speakers stand included Washington Gov. Albert Rosellini, Washington Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, other senators from western states, the Washington state grange master, Herald publisher Glenn Lee, and officials from the Bonneville Power Administration, the Atomic Energy Commission, General Electric and WPPSS.
Scout Det Wegener, 17, also was stationed at the speakers stand when the president’s helicopter arrived. The whirlwind sent the American flag there down with a crack, Curtis said. Wegener picked up the flag and broken pole and held the Stars and Stripes in place until the president left.
'WHY WOULD ANYONE KILL THE PRESIDENT?'
School let out early so children could go with their families to see the president.
“I think everyone in town was there — Pasco, Kennewick and Richland,” Plahuta said.
But not Todd Nelson, who now works for Bechtel National at Hanford. “My parents were Republican,” he said. Even at the age of seven he felt he was missing out after hearing so much talk about the president’s visit.
But the Democratic president was so popular that he drew many Republicans to Hanford, said Mark McAllister of Richland. His parents also were Republican, but excited to see Kennedy.
McAllister, who was 7, remembers the helicopters flying in, seeing the president and then wandering through the crowd until he got lost. The Herald reported that 35 children were separated from their parents and ended up at the lost and found tent.
Some of the many helicopters that flew in likely carried press. But Mike Wingfield, of Richland, who was seven then, remembers his father saying they were decoys so the president would not be killed.
“I thought ‘Why would anyone kill the president?’” Wingfield said.
The event meant hours of driving and then waiting in the hot sun with no water, he said. One enterprising man sold apples, just the thing for his thirst. But Wingfield’s father was furious at the price — a nickel — and Wingfield didn’t get an apple.
Jacqueline Britton had goose bumps when the president’s helicopter came in, she said. It was a scene that at nine years old she had seen on television many times.
“I didn’t know anyone who had seen the president,” she said.
People cheered so loudly that her mother complained she couldn’t hear what the president was saying, but Britton thinks she remembers hearing the president’s distinctive accent.
It was difficult to see over the heads of the vast crowd, but a man standing near them took turns holding Britton and her sister up.
“It is a great memory — something I will never forget,” she said.
She felt a particular closeness to the Kennedys because she shared a first name with the glamorous first lady.
When the president was assassinated two months later, she was devastated, she said.
'A DREADFUL AGE'
The 12-minute speech was a hit with the Mid-Columbia crowd.
The president called Hanford a “great asset” and said “I can assure you it will be maintained.”
The atomic work done at Hanford in the last 20 years had changed the world, but bigger changes were yet to come, he said. There was no telling what the atomic age, “a dreadful age,” would bring. But the nation could lead the world in producing low-cost nuclear power.
His stop was part of a five-day, 11-state tour to promote conservation, and he called for setting aside land, water and wilderness for the future.
“I thought his speech was really outstanding. It was motivating,” said Gene Van Liew, who worked at Hanford in 1963. He was there with his wife and four young children and the speech had him thinking about issues beyond himself and his work, helping prompt him to quit smoking cold turkey.
In a final bit of theatrics, the president waved the atomic wand to activate the crane.
“I assume this is wholly on the level and there is no one over there working it,” he joked.
He took the atomic wand with him as a souvenir, the Herald reported.
But it evidently found its way back to Eastern Washington. Energy Northwest, formerly WWPPS, owns the wand, plus the podium where Kennedy spoke and the chair he sat on.
All are on loan to the CREHST museum in Richland, which has the atomic wand on display.