Terry Howard was standing at the corner of Elizabeth Avenue and Kings Drive that September afternoon when the passing motorcade slowed to a stop in front of him.
The 20-year-old machinist found himself a few feet from the 1960 Democratic presidential nominee, John Kennedy.
“All I had to do was stand on the curb and reach out,” he recalls. “I said ‘Welcome to Charlotte, Mr. President.’ (He) shook hands and said ‘Thank you.’”
Less than two months before he was elected president, Kennedy spent a few hours in Charlotte that day as part of a whirlwind campaign tour of North Carolina.
This week, on the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas, Kennedy’s 1960 visit is a poignant reminder of a more innocent time.
That afternoon, according to news reports, he drove through downtown to east Charlotte in the back of a Lincoln convertible. He passed close enough to waiting admirers to grab babies, press the flesh and shake hands with people like Terry Howard.
The visit, which drew 12,000 people to the old coliseum and thousands more to the streets, was remarkable for an impromptu intimacy that no longer exists today when security concerns usually prevent casual encounters.
“There were security people there … but you were not aware of them unless you were looking for them,” says Jack Claiborne, who helped cover the visit for the Observer. “Kennedy and others in their group encouraged people to shake hands, reach out and touch them.”
Kennedy was joined on the trip by an entourage of Democratic politicians including Gov. Luther Hodges and gubernatorial hopeful Terry Sanford. One of the first major Southern figures to endorse Kennedy, Sanford had seconded his nomination at the Democratic convention.
It was a Saturday in mid-September when Kennedy made his first campaign swing through the state. He stopped in Greenville and Greensboro before arriving in Charlotte and ending the day in Raleigh.
After weather forced cancellation of an appearance in Asheville, he arrived in Charlotte early, retreating to an airport motel where he watched 30 minutes of the Alabama-Georgia football game.
Then he hopped in the white Lincoln convertible on his way to the coliseum, now Bojangles arena. The route had been published in the paper the day before. Today such itineraries are never advertised, and specific routes are never shared.
Barbara Yandle was with her parents in the Park-N-Shop grocery story on Wilkinson Boulevard when somebody made an announcement over the store’s PA system. Kennedy was on his way.
Barbara, then 13, joined the crowd that poured out to the street. As the motorcade approached, no one held them back.
“We were pushed up against the car,” she recalls. “There were people behind us pushing us forward. He and Jackie were sitting in the back seat.”
She saw enough to be taken. “The charisma that man exuded was unreal,” she says. “When he looked at you and smiled, that was it.”
Later, Howard Wentz was waiting at an intersection on Independence Boulevard. He had gotten out of his car and was holding his 3-year-old daughter, Debbie.
“(Kennedy) came by and he was sitting up on the back seat with his feet on the seat and made eye contact with us, because we were the only ones parked there,” Wentz recalls.
Twelve thousand people waited at the coliseum that day, ushered to their seats by a hundred “Kennedy Girls” dressed in white blouses and blue skirts. In a 13-minute speech, the candidate promised to bring new energy to the White House.
“What we need,” he told the crowd, “is a sense of purpose and leadership.”
Along the route, Trade Street was lined with onlookers four-deep as Kennedy rode in the back of the convertible with Sanford and David Clark, a Democratic candidate for Congress.
All told, an estimated 40,000 North Carolinians saw Kennedy that day. He would go on to carry the state over Republican Richard Nixon with 52 percent of the vote.
Sanford is credited with helping Kennedy. He won 54 percent of the vote and put his own reputation on the line for the Massachusetts senator.
“Sanford was willing to give up some of his own vote to help Kennedy and I think his endorsement certainly made a difference in the general election,” says Sanford biographer Howard Covington. “Nixon was looking pretty good in North Carolina in 1960.”
Claiborne, who is also a local historian, says November’s outcome was by no means certain that September.
“It was up in the air, there was a great deal of doubt,” he says. “But the more people were exposed to him, they liked what they saw. They liked his ebullient confidence and the ease with which he met people.”