John F. Kennedy set off in 1963 from Washington, D.C. on a five-day tour of the west to promote conservation and efficient use of natural resources. He would stop in places like Cheyenne and Tacoma, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. On Sept. 25, Kennedy became the first sitting president to visit Billings since Woodrow Wilson in 1919.
Q2’s Jay Kohn was there- not as a reporter, but as an excited sixth grader.
“I was in the grandstands of the Yellowstone County fairgrounds,” Kohn said Friday. “They had bused us from the Highlands School down to see President Kennedy speak- my first chance to ever see a president in person. I remember the excitement. It was a big deal.”
While Kennedy’s trip was aimed at promoting conservation, Kohn didn't recall the 15-minute speech having much to do with that.
“It wasn’t that far removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis, so one of his topics was the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty... I had no idea what he was talking about, but it was just cool to be there and watch it," he said.
Though the Test Ban Treaty may not have inspired excitement, Kennedy, always a fan of literature, ended his speech in Billings with soaring rhetoric by quoting author Henry David Thoreau: “Eastward I go, only by force. Westward I go free. I must walk towards Oregon. I walk towards Montana.”
Kohn was one of about 17,000 other Montanans applauding at the end of Kennedy’s speech, and another large crowd showed up in Great Falls the next day to watch Kennedy speak at Great Falls High Memorial Stadium. The president also made a house call to the father of Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield.
Kennedy left Great Falls and continued on with his tour and sadly, just two short months later, he was assassinated in Dallas.
Kohn says that Kennedy’s death solidified his memories of that presidential trip to Billings and as luck would have it, his father would eventually pass down a unique keepsake to him from Kennedy’s Montana swing.
“After his visit here, my dad gave me this tie clasp,” said Kohn. “It’s a Kennedy, PT-109 tie clasp. But I think they gave them out as memorabilia of his visit to Billings... I’ve always had it in my tie clasp drawer and whenever we are doing stories about the Kennedy visit, I bring it out. It’s pretty cool. For me, it is a great memory of that day.
For more information on Kennedy’s Western Tour, log onto the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum website: