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JFK and me

A former Sandy man recalls his encounter with the future president, and a big surprise 44 years later


by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: ROBERT OPPERMAN - John F. Kennedy and 13-year-old Robert Opperman, then of Sandy, walk down the hall of Sandy High School in May, 1960.Editor's note: It will be 50 years on Nov. 22 since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. That was a defining moment for America and for the world as the news of the tragedy spread across the global news wires. Closer to home, and for one young Sandy boy, Kennedy's death was particularly painful. Here is the story of Robert Opperman, who spent time one-on-one with Kennedy during his brief visit to Sandy High School in May 1960.

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My mother lied for me on that memorable day in May 1960.

She wrote a note telling my school that I had a dental appointment and needed to leave school early. The truth was I had an appointment with the future president of the United States.

Little did I know that day would link me to John F. Kennedy in the minds of my classmates, and also would garner me the dubious senior class prophecy of “serving in the U.S. Senate” (printed with a small drawing of someone serving coffee in front of the capital dome.)

It all started when, as a 13-year-old, I began accompanying my parents from our Cherryville home to their monthly Mt. Hood Democratic Club meetings. My father was a political junkie of sorts, consistently praising Franklin D. Roosevelt and leaving marks on my impressionable mind about who the best candidates were (Democrats) and “you gotta watch out for those other guys” (Republicans).

Robert OppermanSo, it seemed natural for me to join with others to end the eight years of “Ike” and Nixon.

Surprisingly, as things developed that spring, we learned that Kennedy was coming to Sandy, population around 1,200.

Certainly Kennedy had other, more important engagements in the Portland area, so why he would come to a small logging community is still a puzzle mystery. Must have been good reason, though — faraway Oregon, logging, blue-collar, rural folks.

He hadn’t fully caught on nationally yet, and here’s this rich guy with a famous name and a funny accent coming to our mountain area. He had just recently won the West Virginia primary, which showed that, as a Catholic, he could win a predominantly Protestant, blue-collar, coal mining state. Now, on to a similar state in the West.

So it was that my fellow Democratic club members named me “Honorary Chairman of the Greeting Committee.” Kennedy was to speak at Sandy High School at 3:30 p.m., thus the need for my mom’s contrived note to get me there in plenty of time.

I had to walk the half-mile from the grade school to my personal date with destiny. And I was taking this appointment seriously.

Kennedy was late, of course, so I waited patiently and nervously in the school hallway. His arrival was uneventful by today’s standards. I greeted him, alone, as he entered with those characteristically bent elbows and hunched shoulders, holding a pen in one of his hands, and with no Secret Service hovering around.

As I led him into the cafeteria and toward the stage, people stood and applauded, though there was no band playing or flag waving or balloons. Most of the folding chairs were full, but no standing-room-only crowd in the spacious area surrounding the seats.

After he spoke — and I remember nothing of what he said — I greeted him again and presented him with a momento from school that day. We were graduating eigth-graders (no junior high or middle school back then) and had published our last little mimeographed school newspaper, spirit-fluid-smell and all.

I had all of the graduates sign it on the back cover, and I presented it to him “On behalf of the graduating class of Sandy Elementary School.” (Looking back, how dumb was that?)

There were some autograph seekers, to be sure, but most people left immediately. I stuck by his side and out into the hall again for a picture, with our little newspaper showing, folded and tucked under his left arm.

Could it be, still, somehow, somewhere in a box at Boston’s Kennedy Library? Probably not, but I hope someday to find out.

Not finished with my official duties, I escorted Kennedy — again alone — to his waiting car and opened the right rear door, bidding him goodbye. The only other car left in the single row of parking was that of my waiting mother and siblings, and I, too, entered the right rear seat.

We waited until the hopeful candidate’s car passed behind us, he staring at me, smiling, and lifting his hand in recognition, as though we knew each other, and as though he was interested in me and my reception of him.

That was the moment, I think, that he became mine, as he would for so many in the months and years ahead.

Isn’t that what happens to all of us, to varying degrees? The presidents become personal, especially the ones we like? He’s the one person we all share, for better or worse, hopefully for at least four years. So, JFK became my first president.

After winning Oregon, he went on to California, as his brother did eight years later, and to a hundred other “Sandys” in securing the nomination. I entered high school wearing JFK/LBJ buttons and spending weekends going door to door with campaign literature for Kennedy and numerous other candidates. I hung on every word of his famous inaugural speech, even cutting and saving it from the newspaper.

The president’s death, 1,000-plus days later, stunned me and the nation (the world, really, because he and his wife, Jackie, were very popular overseas).

It was surreal.

Schools were dismissed for the funeral, and my picture with him was printed in our high school newspaper and yearbook, which renewed my link to him and politics in others’ minds.

I campaigned again for Robert Kennedy five years later while in college. In fact, my car trunk was full of Kennedy lawn signs when he was killed.

But, the story does not end there. I later married and settled in West Virginia, making it impossible for me to attend class reunions back in Sandy until the 30th and 40th years.

But that's when, you might say, the story came full circle.

My high school campaigning for JFK often included the help of a fellow classmate under the supervision of a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother (who also shows in the accompanying picture), both of whom I saw only occasionally after the election.

When my 1964 high school graduation drew near, she bought me a nice Kennedy remembrance book titled, “That Special Grace,” along with a card. For some reason she never gave them to me. Why? I’ll never know.

Later, my campaign mentor and her mother both died without any surviving relatives, so the task of going through their home and belongings fell to a local state trooper whose wife helped him and who happened to be the sister of my fellow classmate campaigner.

The ladies’ old house was in disrepair, leaky roof and all, and they would have been good candidates for today’s TV show about hoarders. So, it was no small task rummaging through the damp and musty boxes, where they discovered my graduation gift and card, 40 years later.

I went to the reunion expecting to see my fellow campaigner, but she was not able to attend, but she made sure to send her sister with my surprise gift.

It’s as though my “Kennedy connection” would never end, and indeed, it won’t. Nor will it end for the rest of us, because he belongs to all of us — his youth, his smile, his wife and his kids. We all miss him still, regardless of political or religious persuasion.

With his brief, but awe-inspiring chapter in our American history, and with stories like mine and countless others even more personal, he will live on for future generations for another 50 years, and another 50, and long beyond that.

Surely, that does take a “special grace” to so endure.