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Locals remember President John F. Kennedy's visit to the Valley

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio - President John F. Kennedy's first visit to Youngstown in 1946 was a somber one.

He and his fellow crew members of PT 109 came here to serve as pall bearers for the funeral of Leonard Thom, the boat's executive officer, who was killed in a car crash.

Kennedy returned to Youngstown in October 1959, looking for support in his bid for the democratic party nomination for president. He met with congressman Mike Kirwan at the Idora Park ballroom, and former Mahoning County Democratic party chairman Don Hanni, who was impressed early on with the young senator from Massachusetts.

As the democratic nominee, Kennedy returned to the valley on October 9, 1960 one month before the election. On that sunny Sunday afternoon, people assembled shoulder to shoulder - covering blocks of downtown Youngstown to get a glimpse of a tanned, confident, energetic candidate.

Bill Kerpsack was standing about 20 feet away from Kennedy and the crowd cheered wildly.

""I would say there's probably never been anything like it in Youngstown and how he appealed to the people there," he said.

Former State Senator Harry Meshel said the Vindicator estimated that around 40,000 people showed up that day, and Democrats estimated roughly 70,000. There has never been a crowd that size in Youngstown - before or since.

"No, if you were giving away free meat and steaks you couldn't get a crowd that large. But he was meat and steak for the public at that time. He was so adored," Meshel said.

Meshel chaired the Citizens for Kennedy campaign. His scrapbooks are filled with memorabilia from the Kennedy's including a Christmas card signed by Jackie and letters thanking Meshel for his work on the campaign signed by the president elect.

He said that Kennedy's "hope" is what drove his popularity among the American people.

"This man looked like there was a glimmer of hope, and then a bright shining light for hope because he represented our age. He was well educated, articulate and aggressive. It was a race for a time but he was very confident, and when I saw that I said 'that's what you need as a leader,'" he said.

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