On May 18, 1963, Vanderbilt University and Dudley Field hosted John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. President Kennedy was in Nashville to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Vanderbilt University and to dedicate the construction of the Percy Priest Dam.
President Kennedy stepped off “Air Force One” on Berry Field in the Metropolitan Airport at 10:35 a.m. This was the beginning of his three hours in Nashville. The Tennessean wrote:
“Welcome to our new metropolitan city! A wide grin spread across the face of Metro Mayor Beverly Briley as he greeted the President of the United States and signaled the start of a whirlwind visit to Nashville that was to last three hours and six minutes. ‘Thank you very much,’ President Kennedy told Briley. ‘I’m indeed happy to be here.’
“It was ‘Metro Day for JFK’ and the whole community, with its 47-day-old local government responded with open arms at the first appearance of a president here in 27 years. Thousands of men, women and children jammed the airport for the arrival, reaching for a presidential handshake and watching for the contagious smile of the chief executive.
“Metropolitan Nashville was a proud city. It seemed as though all mothers and fathers brought their children to see the President. The parade route was lined with flag-waving youngsters. Briley joined the motorcade for the 8-mile trek to the stadium. Other metro officials and councilmen had special buses to take them to the stadium where reserved seats were waiting.
“The mayor said he thought there were well over 200,000 people who saw the President during the day. Some 33,000 heard him speak at Vanderbilt University. Thousands more watched on television.”
President Kennedy arrived at Dudley Field at 11:10 a.m., and was driven straight onto the field next to a platform specially built for this occasion. Awaiting the president were dozens of dignitaries and Vanderbilt University officials.
Vanderbilt Chancellor Alexander Heard introduced JFK to those in attendance. These are excerpts about Vanderbilt from President Kennedy’s speech on Dudley Field:
“Many things bring us together today. We are saluting the 90th anniversary of Vanderbilt University, which has grown from a small Tennessee university and institution to one of our Nation’s greatest with seven different colleges, and with more than half of its 4,200 students from outside the state of Tennessee.”
“The essence of Vanderbilt is still learning, the essence of its outlook is still liberty, and liberty and learning will be and must be the touchstones of Vanderbilt University and of any free university in this country or the world. I say two touchstones, yet they are almost inseparable, inseparable if not indistinguishable, for liberty without learning is always in peril, and learning without liberty is always in vain.”
“When Bishop McTyeire, 90 years ago, proposed it to Commodore Vanderbilt, he said, ‘Commodore, our country has been torn to pieces by a civil war. We want to repair this damage.’ And Commodore Vanderbilt reportedly replied, ‘I want to unite this country, and all sections of it, so that all our people will be one.’ His response, his recognition of his obligation and opportunity gave Vanderbilt University not only its endowment but also a mission. Now, 90 years later, in a time of tension, it is more important than ever to unite this country and strengthen these ties so that all our people will be one.
“Ninety years from now I have no doubt that Vanderbilt University will still be fulfilling this mission. It will still uphold learning, encourage public service, and teach respect for the law. It will neither turn its back on proven wisdom or turn its face from newborn challenge. It will still pass on to the youth of our land the meaning of their rights and their responsibilities. And it will still be teaching the truth—the truth that makes us free and will keep us free.”
This is a partial list of the dignitaries that sat on the platform on Dudley Field with President Kennedy: Alexander Heard, Chancellor of Vanderbilt; U.S. Representatives Howard Baker, Ross Bass, Richard Fulton and Bill Brock; Governor Frank G. Clement; former governors Gordon Browning, Prentice Cooper, Jim Nance McCord and Buford Ellington; U.S. Senators Al Gore and Estes Kefauver; Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley; Athens Clay Pullias, President of David Lipscomb College; Dr. Walter Davis, President of Tennessee State University; Harold S. Vanderbilt, President of Vanderbilt Board of Trust; William H. Vanderbilt, Jr. and Dr. Stephen J. Wright, President of Fisk University.
President Kennedy was dressed in a dark blue suit and wearing a black and gold tie. A portion of President Kennedy’s speech was devoted to segregation, a main issue in the country during this time. At the conclusion of the speech, President Kennedy pushed a button on an electronic device that set off an explosion on the construction site of the Percy Priest Dam several miles away. This was part of the dedication ceremony for the dam’s construction. The blast of dynamite was heard over the stadium’s sound system.
Upon leaving Dudley Field, the President was on his way to the governor’s mansion for a luncheon. He was the first president to visit Tennessee’s executive mansion. President Kennedy met with several cabinet members and other guests and retreated to a private upstairs room for a shower and change of clothes. Lunch consisted of ham, chicken, asparagus, and strawberry shortcake.
The President was taken to Overton High School where an army helicopter was waiting for him. The helicopter flew JFK straight to Muscle Shoals, Ala., to take part in ceremonies marking the 30th anniversary of the signing of the act that created the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Traughber’s Tidbit: The black limousine that transported President Kennedy on his trip throughout Nashville and was parked on Dudley Field, is the same automobile that was driven during his November 22nd visit to Dallas later that year.
Tidbit Two: While in Nashville, baseball was on the mind of the President. Nashville Vols’ (baseball member of the Sally League) general manager Ed Doherty was one of the dignitaries invited to greet JFK at Berry Field. Doherty knew the President when he was a student at Harvard. At that time Doherty was connected with the Boston Red Sox and they renewed their friendship when Doherty was working for the Washington Senators in 1961-62. President Kennedy asked Doherty how the Vols were doing and asked where the Senators stood in the standings. Through a letter, Doherty earlier invited the President to attend that night’s Vols’ game at the Sulphur Dell ballpark against Knoxville. The invitation was declined since JFK was scheduled to return to Washington that evening.
Tidbit Three: There is a bronze plaque at Dudley Field to honor President Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Vanderbilt. The marker is located on the concourse wall under the South end zone stands.
If you have any comments or suggestions, contact Bill Traughber via email at WLTraughber@aol.com. Scheduled for release in October is Traughber’s book “Vanderbilt Basketball: Tales of Commodore Hardwood History.” This will be the last CHC story for this school year.