This story was originally published in The Aegis on Wednesday, May 19, 2010. We are running it online in honor of former Sen. Joseph D. Tydings, who died Monday, Oct. 8, at age 90.
Early on the morning of Saturday, May 14, 1960, a crowd gathered around the small front lawn of Havre de Grace's brick city hall on Union Avenue to be part of what really did turn out to be history in the making.
There, on a temporary platform set up for the occasion, Mayor Walter McLhinney, flanked by other prominent local political figures, presented a key to the city to a distinguished visitor, Sen. John F. Kennedy, of Massachusetts.
Kennedy was running for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination and, literally overnight, had become the hot candidate by winning the West Virginia primary the previous Tuesday. With Maryland's primary coming up on May 17, the stakes were quickly rising.
Depending on which published local news account you believe, the crowd was either "300 to 350" or "500," although one person who was there says it wasn't all that large. No matter the size, the man who orchestrated the event says the whole thing turned out to be "fabulous."
In a display that would soon become widely known as "the Kennedy charm," The Record of Havre de Grace reported the senator "needled other hopefuls for not entering the primary election here and in other states and provoked some laughter when he referred to the name of our city and the varied pronunciations thereof."
"I herewith present you with a key to our city and I hope, to the White House," McLhinney told his guest.
A photograph published on the bottom of Page 1 of the next edition of The Record on Friday, May 20, 1960 (and after the primary election), shows Kennedy behind the podium receiving the key from McLhinney. The head of a former state delegate, Thomas J. Hatem, is visible between the two men.
Though the published photograph was not credited, the newspaper's archived copy shows it was taken by Pershing Studio, of Havre de Grace, and that some cropping had been done before it got into print.
Neither Havre de Grace City Council President William Dietz or Bishop Moll, treasurer of the Harford County Democratic Party, who were standing to McLhinney's right, show up in the published version of the photograph. The crop marks framing McLhinney and Kennedy are still visible on the bottom of the photograph 50 years later.
When Kennedy's visit was first announced in The Aegis and The Record a few weeks earlier, it wasn't expected to be anything special. After all, politicians on their way to somewhere, including presidents, had been stopping by Havre de Grace since Colonial times.
"The Maryland primary was a week after West Virginia... he was now a viable presidential candidate," recalled former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings. "Everything changed all of a sudden, and Maryland was a hell of a lot more important."
Tydings, then a state delegate who lived on his family's Oakington estate south of Havre de Grace, was an early Kennedy supporter. The two had met a few years earlier when Kennedy spoke in Baltimore at the annual Jackson Day Dinner of the Maryland Young Democrats, of which Tydings was president.
"It was really the first time I had met him," Tydings said. "Needless to say I was impressed."
When his campaign started, Kennedy was considered an outlier, albeit one with plenty of family money at his disposal, but one with virtually no clout among the people who mattered in picking a nominee, the state and big city party bosses who controlled the convention nominating process. Most of them thought him too young and a political lightweight.
And, there was the other matter of his being a Catholic, sure to turn off as many voters as it might attract, or so went the conventional wisdom of the time.
Kennedy's campaign strategy to capture the nomination was designed to sidestep the party bosses and appeal directly to voters in a handful of states that held meaningful primaries, including Maryland.
By winning the primaries, he would impress those who would ultimately decide the nomination at the Democrats' national convention scheduled for Los Angeles in July that he was a viable candidate capable of beating the presumptive Republican nominee, Vice President Richard M. Nixon.
Radical as it may have seemed in 1960, the Kennedy strategy, which depended on ordinary people seeing the candidate up close and personal (the campaign's reliance on television, though soon to come, was still in the formative stages) was a key break with tradition and became a prototype for future campaigns.
Tydings, now 82 and still practicing corporate law in Washington, D.C., says he was happy to get involved in the 1960 Kennedy campaign, and it quickly evolved that delivering Maryland's primary votes fell directly on his shoulders.
A month before the primary, there was virtually no organization in Maryland, as the professionals leading the campaign were focused on West Virginia. Kennedy had already met with Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes, who advised him not to enter the Maryland primary, according to Tydings, which would give Tawes control of the Maryland delegation at the convention.
Kennedy didn't listen to Tawes, which was another point in his favor with Tydings, but that also meant there was plenty of work to be done in getting organized with the various local Democratic clubs across the state.
By the evening following the West Virginia vote, Tydings had put together a whirlwind two-day tour of Maryland, starting with a speech in Chestertown on Thursday night.
The following morning, Kennedy started in Hagerstown and "worked the whole state," coming east to Annapolis for a dinner, Tydings recalled.
Meanwhile, Kennedy's brother, Robert, was in Harford County all day Friday, making stops in Bel Air, Aberdeen and Havre de Grace.
"I wanted to carry Harford County badly," Tydings said. "It was my home."
Tydings, Kennedy and Massachusetts Congressman Torbert MacDonald, who was traveling with the candidate, arrived at Oakington where they spent the night, Tydings said. They had an equally long day ahead of them, starting with the rally in Havre de Grace at 8:30 Saturday morning.
City hall was actually the second of two stops Kennedy made in Havre de Grace that morning. Earlier, he had greeted well-wishers at the local Democratic Party's headquarters at 112 N. Washington St., where a photograph was also taken.
This one was published at the top of Page 1 of The Aegis in its next edition on Thursday, May 19, 1960, and it also appears on Page 5 of the May 20 edition of The Record. Tydings has a framed copy on the wall of his office.
Tydings said he thought the photograph was taken in front of McLhinney's Newsstand, particularly because "the mayor was sick that day, and I really wanted him to meet Sen. Kennedy, because McLhinney was a friend of my father's (U.S. Sen. Millard Tydings) and he had been instrumental in my political career." Tydings said he hadn't remembered that McLhinney attended the city hall rally.
Standing with Kennedy in the Washington Street photo are Tydings, Bishop Moll, Florence Moll and Harry Bobst. Kennedy is shaking hands with Bishop Moll. On the far right of the photo is a youngster identified as F. Charles Nowak Jr., age 11 or 12, who was a student at St. Patrick's Catholic School and the son of a local insurance broker active in the Democratic Party.
Hard to forget
Even though he hadn't looked at the published photograph in years, Jack McLaughlin, a longtime reporter and editor for The Aegis and now editor of the Harford Business Ledger can recite from memory the names of everyone in it, including his then classmate from St. Patrick's "Chuckie" Nowak.
"It's just one of those things you remember," he said.
McLaughlin didn't go to see Kennedy that day. It was, after all, a Saturday morning, and 11-year-old kids have better things to do than listen to political speeches.
"I don't remember the crowd being that big," Bobby Parker, who was 14 or 15 at the time, said.
Parker, a freelance photographer and a frequent contributor to The Aegis and The Record, said he and some buddies stopped by the rally to see what was happening.
"I do know there weren't many of us there," added Parker, who is black.
At this point in his political career, Kennedy was still treading lightly with the dominant Southern conservative wing of his party; the linkage to the civil rights movement would come gradually later.
The Havre de Grace he visited on that Saturday morning in May 1960 was still very much a part of the era of Jim Crow segregation, as was the rest of Harford County and much of the rest of Maryland. Kennedy was not in town to rock that boat.
In those days, Parker and his friends still had to go around to the back to get service at Vancherie's Restaurant just a couple of blocks from city hall, they still had to sit in the balcony of the State Theater a few blocks from Democratic headquarters and the schools in town were still off-limits to them, six years after the Supreme Court had outlawed such restrictions by race.
Parker and his friends attended Havre de Grace Consolidated on the road to Oakington, the Tydings estate overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. Kennedy would have certainly ridden past the blacks-only school that morning on his way to the rally.
From Havre de Grace, Kennedy, Tydings and MacDonald got into a late model convertible driven by Harford County car dealer Joe Lee. A state police cruiser served as escort.
They stopped first in Elkton, where the senator gave a brief speech in front of the courthouse, then it was on to Centerville, then Easton, then Cambridge.
By then, according to Tydings, Kennedy "was in pain" from his chronic back problems. They rested for two hours, although Kennedy spent most of the time on the telephone. Then it was on to Salisbury and another speech.
In Salisbury, the group boarded Kennedy's private airplane, named for his daughter, Caroline, and flew to Baltimore. It was the first time Tydings had been on the plane.
From Baltimore, the group motored south to Prince George's County and more outdoor campaigning in Southern Maryland. Then it was back to Baltimore for an evening television appearance and rally, "and then we put him on a plane for Oregon" and the next primary coming up May 20, Tydings recalled.
"It was a killer schedule," Tydings said, "but I didn't want to lose Southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore or Harford County.”
The effort paid off, as Kennedy won Maryland's Democratic primary with 73 percent of the vote, easily carrying Harford County in the process. He had moved another step closer to the nomination, and eventually to the White House.
Though the Nixon-Kennedy general election campaign that followed in the fall would forge attitudes about politics and America that influenced a generation, John Kennedy never campaigned in Harford County again after May 14, 1960.
After he became president, however, Kennedy and other members of his family still visited Tydings at Oakington, including one memorable dinner in August 1963, when the president urged Tydings, by then Maryland's U.S. Attorney, to run for Maryland's U.S. Senate seat in 1964, according to Tydings. (A year later Tydings would fulfill the late president's wish. He served a single term, losing a re-election bid in 1970.)
Today, Tydings divides his time between Washington, where he keeps an apartment, and Monkton, where he spends his weekends.
"I still vote at Youth's Benefit Elementary," said the lifelong Democrat, who admits he's not happy with what has become the Republican Party's dominance of Harford County politics.
(As a postscript to this story, though Tydings' memory of the events of 50 years ago is vivid on most counts, he was mistaken on one point. John Kennedy carried Maryland in the 1960 general election, but not so Harford County. Solidly Democratic as it was and Tydings' recollection to the contrary, Harford's record turnout of more than 21,000 voters on Election Day Nov. 8, 1960, favored Republican Nixon with 11,901 votes to 9,185 for Kennedy.)
In 2016, Jerome Hersl, a member of the nascent Campaign 42 Project to document Harford County’s African American history, showed us an original photograph of the group with Tydings and Kennedy taken in front of party headquarters on North Washington Street. Cropped out of the published version was the late Cornelius J. Smith, a Havre de Grace Realtor and local Democratic Party stalwart who was African American. Editor