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Arkansans Remember Kennedy at Greers Ferry Lake

HEBER SPRINGS, Ark. -- Fifty years ago, he came to Arkansas to dedicate Greers Ferry Dam, a project that today, inspires people to come visit, look around and see what's offered.
HEBER SPRINGS, Ark. -- While President John F. Kennedy inspired a generation to reach for and explore the heavens, he was also determined to inspire generations to explore the heartland and see what this country has to offer.

Fifty years ago, he came to Arkansas to dedicate Greers Ferry Dam, a project that today, inspires people to come visit, look around and see what's offered.
 
From a podium at Dam Site, he told the country the heartbeat driving the pulse of prosperity was beating hardest in Arkansas.

Larry Brannen, a ninth grader in Little Rock at the time, recalls school was let out so everyone could get a chance to see President Kennedy speak at the State Fair Grounds in Little Rock.

"It was Oct. 3. It was a beautiful day," recalls Brannen.
 
Jerome Johnson was a 44-year-old Heber Springs banker. He was part of a lager crowd gathering at the Dam, proud of the invited guest.

"There was a huge crowd there, people from everywhere, and we had the president there," Johnson said.

Kennedy opened up with something he read in the paper earlier that day.
 
"It said in the New York Times today that if Congressman Mills suggested it, the president would be glad to come down here and dedicate this dam, and sing 'Down by The Ole Mill Stream' or any other request that was made, and I would be delighted. "
 
The crowd laughed and applauded at the president's clear reference to the power held by Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Mills.

Some argued Mills' Chairmanship on the House Committee on Ways and Means made him as powerful, if not more so than the president.

In fact, Arkansas' Congressional delegation at the time held more political power than most, which was a big reason for Mr. Kennedy to oblige any request of Mr. Mills.

"I think it's important that you in Arkansas realize the decision you make in electing your congressmen and senators, who have influence not only in the lives of people in this state, but also in the lives of people of the entire country," the president said.

He spoke firmly of how Greers Ferry Dam was more than a flood control project. He knew it would benefit generations of Americans, and he used Greers Ferry as a backdrop so other states would take notice.

"The full impact of it will be felt by the sense of recreation and industry and all the rest in 5, 10, 15, 20 years. That's a long view, it's a man's lifetime. No other state in the Union is going faster than the state of Arkansas," he said.
 
"It has lived up to everything," said Melisa Gardner of the Heber Springs Area Chamber of Commerce. "He was here for the flood aspect, but he did see the impact for recreation, he addressed that that day."

The president took notice of how well Arkansans came together to make Greers a multi-use project.

"It seems to me, this state is a fine product and example of what can be done by the people here working together, working harder," he said.
 
Johnson said he was thrilled to be in the crowd.

"Everybody wanted to see him, of course, a lot of us were Democrats, and we wanted to see our president," he said.
 
The president referenced rising waters to represent more than a growing Greers Ferry Lake but underline the economic growth that would follow the project, and others like it.
 
"A rising tide lifts all boats, and as Arkansas becomes more prosperous, so does the United States," he said.

Kennedy's real test for those in attendance came away from the podium. Johnson took notice as he freely moved in and around the throngs of people, shaking hands and stopping for pictures.

"He was very polite with people, I noticed," Johnson said. "I did not get a chance to shake his hand, but he was polite and friendly and very accepted. He went over real good."

On that day in Little Rock, ninth grader Brannen was in awe when the president arrived at the State Fair Grounds.

"An impressive display just to see those helicopters come in," he said. "All the press getting off, the Secret Service and then the president."

Brannen admits he was on a mission to shake John F. Kennedy's hand. The eager student worked his way up the barricade. To this day, he easily recalls so many of the details.

"He had the best looking suit on," he said. "He was tan, tanner than anyone. He had that smile, so gregarious. A fairly big guy, he just had that aura about him. He was moving down the line shaking hands. I put my hand out, extra early, thinking this is going to be great! I'm going to shake hands with President Kennedy!"

Brannen was ready. The wait was over, he thought.

"About 20 feet before he got to me, he stopped," Brannen said.

But Brannen said the two still made a connection, though it was not physical.
 
"I'll never forget it, our eyes locked," Brannen said. "I looked right into his eyes."

Looking over the crowd earlier in the day, President Kennedy made it clear he was in no way strong-armed by Congressional power to visit Arkansas and hinted at a return trip some day.
 
"I take pride in coming here today," he said. "I know 10 years from now, if we come back, we'll see a richer state. I think you can take pride in what you've done."

Within six weeks, President John F. Kennedy was in Dallas.

It's a day Brannen vividly recalls as well.

"I saw a fellow student crying in the hall," he said. "I saw others huddled near by. I went in to my class, the teacher announced what had happened, and the joy went away."

While the entire country mourned, it's safe to say Arkansas felt a deeper pain.

After the president's trip to Heber Springs, Arkansans could lay claim to their share of Camelot. It was real, it walked on our land, wore a well-tailored suit, spoke to the masses and acknowledged the mighty and the working man.

He was proud of what he saw here, and made everyone here, proud to be Arkansan.


(story contributed by KARK, Little Rock)

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