When JFK Came to Buffalo
President John F. Kennedy, along with Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Peter Crotty, and gubernatorial candidate Robert Morgenthau on the steps of Buffalo City Hall.
Photo by Cecil Stoughton; courtesy of the JFK Presidential Library and Museum
There’s a good chance you welcomed President John F. Kennedy to Buffalo in 1962. By contemporary newspaper accounts, about 300,000 lined the Pulaski Day parade route on October 14, with another 100,000 gathered to hear him speak from the steps of City Hall.
The parade then was a bigger event than today, and Kennedy ostensibly came through Buffalo to help Democratic candidates running in the November elections. While he did not let on, it was also the day he learned that a Soviet medium-range ballistic missile was under construction and about to be installed in Cuba. Within two weeks, he informed the nation in a televised address, an element in a nuclear standoff that history calls the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Kennedy rolled down Broadway, through what was then Buffalo’s Polish-American enclave, in the presidential limousine, waving, sometimes standing, sometimes shaking hands as well-wishers rushed the car. That sunny Sunday seemed custom-made for a parade.
The motorcade concluded at Niagara Square, filled with several acres of people awaiting his address and spilling over onto Delaware Avenue, Court Street, and beyond. They waited through brief speeches by Representative Thaddeus Dulski, Henry Osinski of the Pulaski Day committee, Mayor Chester Kowal, and Robert Morgenthau, Democratic gubernatorial candidate. A religious invocation was performed. A local girl, a St. Stanislaus Church parishioner, presented Kennedy with a doll to give his daughter. The buildup was an example of tried-and-true political theater. The crowd was excited, anticipating something memorable.
Kennedy, like a rock star in a heavily Democratic part of America, delivered.
He spoke of Poland, of Polish-Americans, and of his own trip to Poland, mangling the place names, although the audience understood every word. For those who did not know, he recounted General Casimir Pulaski’s contribution to the American Revolution before Pulaski’s death in Georgia at age thirty-two.
Kennedy’s address forcefully included a commitment to liberate Poland from Soviet Communism. “We must never, in statement, treaty, declaration, or any other manner, recognize Soviet domination of Eastern Europe as permanent,” he said.
Looking at a written transcript of the speech today, it is a sober and careful statement in favor of a democratic Poland and against the oppression of the Soviet Union. No jokes here, instead, a heartfelt overview of Poland’s historic importance to the United States, and an American commitment of solidarity with modern-day Poland.
Of course, the crowd appreciated it, regularly shutting down the speech for cheers and applause.
“'I was in prison and you visited me,’ is the best advice for the United States in 1962 in regard to the people of Poland,” he said, citing the Book of Matthew. It was a speech custom-tailored to the Polish-Americans gathered in Niagara Square, all of whom knew the heartbreaking story of freedom lost, gained, and lost again in Europe. If you grew up in a Polish-American household in Buffalo, you likely had relatives with first-person accounts of it all.
Kennedy closed by invoking the bittersweet first line of Poland’s national anthem. “Poland, in its history, has been overrun, cut apart, occupied, partitioned, but it has remained free in the hearts of the Polish people, and as the old song says, ‘As long as you live, Poland lives:’ ‘Jeszce Polska nie zginiela.’ That is still true, as it was in the history of Poland.”
With Kennedy’s Boston accent, the quote was hardly recognizable, but the audience roared its approval nonetheless. My own recollection, after the proceedings ended—I was eleven at the time—includes watching a note-taking journalist ask an attendee about that anthem verse, and how to spell it. Did Kennedy pronounce it properly? “Yes, perfectly,” he was told.
It is easy to say the afternoon was an unforgettable moment in local and personal history. Kennedy was dead thirteen months later, and these high-contact, low-security presidential tours suddenly stopped. Somehow, 100,000 people in a city square felt a close relationship with a visiting president in Buffalo.
Kennedy moved on to Chicago that day to help more Democratic candidates, and then to the White House to deal with the nuclear standoff. Morgenthau lost his election, Dulski won his. Most of us don’t remember those candidates, but those assembled in Niagara Square that Sunday never forgot JFK’s visit to Buffalo.
Ed Adamczyk is the municipal historian of the Village of Kenmore and the Town of Tonawanda, and a frequent Forever Young contributor.