From jubilation to sorrow - President Kennedy’s historic celebration at Greers Ferry Dam followed by tragedy in Dallas
By Kent Cummins
Little Rock District
HEBER SPRINGS, Ark. - Gasoline cost 30 cents, a loaf of bread was 20 cents, and the price of a gallon of milk was a little more than a dollar.
It was 1963, and the residents of a small Arkansas town nestled at the foothills of the Ozark Mountains were eagerly awaiting the arrival of one of the most important persons on earth.
President John F. Kennedy was set to address the people of Heber Springs, Ark., and thousands of others who would converge on the small town to hear him speak at the dedication of Greers Ferry Dam Oct. 3.
The president took to the stage and addressed the audience at 11 a.m. on an atypical Arkansas fall day with temperatures in the mid-70’s, brilliant sun, and low humidity.
“I remember the day very well because of the unusual nature of a president visiting such a rural location in north central Arkansas,” said Stan Lee, a Heber Springs resident, who was 11 years old on that historic day. “Even at my age, I understood that this was a big deal. Heber Springs was electric. I had never seen such a buzz. We were a town of about 2,000 people and not much unusual went on here. If Aunt Ethel went to Dallas to see her brother, it made front page news in our paper.”
Kennedy traveled to the small community to recognize an enormous accomplishment by the Army Corps of Engineers. He was there to officially dedicate Greers Ferry Dam.
“Oh it was a get up and get dressed in your best clothes kinda day,” said Bobbie Mooney, military program analyst with the Army Corps of Engineers, Little Rock District. “We drove from Benton, Ark., to Greers Ferry Dam really early that morning. There was a really big crowd of people there and everyone was as excited as I was.”
The Corps constructed Greers Ferry dam, which is more than 1,700 feet long and towers 243 feet above the Little Red River. It cost $46.5 million to build and its initial purpose was flood control. Soon after, it served as a source of hydroelectric power. Over the years the dam created one of the most popular recreational destinations in the country and a world-class fishery.
Those gathered at the ceremony listening intently to the youngest man ever elected president had no idea of knowing, that in a few short weeks, he would be the youngest president ever to be assassinated.
“I remember hearing this really loud rumbling roar and I was standing on the ground in a sea of grownups,” said Mooney. “I asked my dad what that noise was, so he put me up on his shoulders so I could see. It was the huge helicopters that flew in across on the other side of the Dam. It was the president!”
Mooney’s father, Robert Sanderlin, worked in Little Rock District’s Surveys Department during the District’s “dam-building era,” of the 1960’s.
Those attending the dedication that day in 1963 also likely could not foretell that the dam, over the years, would attract 7 million visitors to the area and generate almost $250 million in tourism revenue. Many in attendance had no way of forecasting how the dam’s presence would dramatically change the face of the small community of Heber Springs.
But, that day, it wasn’t the dam that stole the show. It was the young president from Massachusetts who was the main attraction. It was the Navy war hero, who in 1943, saved 11 American sailors lives when a Japanese destroyer slammed into his patrol torpedo boat slicing it in two and igniting its fuel tanks.
“Everyone could hardly wait to get a glimpse of JFK,” said Lee. “He was a bigger than life character. The thing I remember most is the first sighting I had of the president as the motorcade crossed the dam. And, my father was the captain of the local National Guard unit and I saw the president stop and shake his hand. That was my favorite part of the day. To see the president with my dad was special.”
Although the president did not know what the future held for his own life, he had a precise vision of the future that the dam would create.
“…Now the dam is built in 1963 and next spring will begin to get power. And the full impact of it will be felt by the sense of recreation and industry and all the rest in 5, 10, 15, or 20 years,” said Kennedy.
“That is a long view. It is a man's lifetime, and I would like to see us in this decade preparing as we must for all of the people who will come after us,” the president continued. “I would like to see us do what we are doing here, do it in the Northwest, do it in the Midwest, do it in the East--set aside land for people so that as we get to become a more urban population, we will still have some place where people can drive and see what their country looks like. That is why this is an important work.”
Lee said he did not fully comprehend the significance of this event at the time.
“In retrospect, to have been there at one of his last official events is really hard to grasp now,” said Lee. “He was a hero figure to the young set. He was a young dynamic personality and we all felt he was ‘our’ president and he had the best interest of the younger generation at heart. He was held in very high esteem.”
Just a short time after the Greers Ferry Dam dedication, on Nov. 22, 1963, an assassin killed Kennedy as his motorcade made its way through Dallas.
“I was heartbroken,” said Mooney. “I was in 7th grade at lunch that day, and suddenly everyone was crying. We watched television in our class rooms for the next few days.”
Kennedy was the reason Mooney became interested in politics.
“When I was 9 years old and the 1960 elections were firing up, there was a lot of talk about politics around the table and every evening after supper. I remember looking at the newspaper and seeing the pictures of Kennedy and Nixon and I made the decision right then that I was for Kennedy because he was cute. I was glued to the television election night 1960 and was so excited when he won. I learned about politics, as much as a 9 or 10 year old could because of JFK.”
There are many personal accounts of the day that Kennedy came to little Heber Springs, Ark., but there are many more about that ominous day in Dallas.
“On the morning of the assassination, my mom, Carolyn Kenney, remembers watching television coverage that showed President Kennedy being presented a cowboy hat,” said Lori Lee, who works at the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Little Rock and is the spouse of Mike Lee, Little Rock District’s chief financial manager. “She remembers him smiling and saying that he would wear it in the White House the next Monday.”
Before he was assassinated, Kennedy was on his way to speak at the Dallas Business and Trade Mart. Lee’s uncle, Elvoy Kenney, was a Dallas police officer who was working at that location for the speech.
“He was working the evening shift but he had been called in to work extra hours that day due to the presidential visit,” said Lee. “When they received word of the shooting he said it was absolute pandemonium. He was good friends with and was trained by Officer J. D. Tippit who was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald.”
Oswald shot and killed Tippit when the officer stopped him and was asking him questions just 45 minutes after Kennedy was killed. Oswald was walking near Tenth and Patton Streets in Dallas and fit the general description of the assassin.
Lee’s family had another unusual connection to the JFK assassination saga.
“On Nov. 24, while authorities were preparing to transfer Oswald by car from the police headquarters basement to the nearby county jail, my family was in traffic that was stopped outside the building,” said Lee. “While we were waiting, the officer, who stopped traffic, heard a gunshot so he motioned for the cars to get out of there quickly. My parents were unaware of what was going on at the time but later learned that was when Oswald was shot.”
In a short seven-week span in 1963, the celebration and jubilation at Greers Ferry, Ark., turned into shock and mourning across the nation. Fifty years later, Corps employees and Arkansas residents can still easily and vividly recall both the joy and sorrow.