Quitman resident recalls JFK’s visit to dam

Carol Rolf Originally Published September 29, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated September 27, 2013 at 12:24 p.m.
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Nelda Kennedy of Quitman reminisces about President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Greers Ferry Dam. As a local business owner at the time, she and her family received an invitation from the Heber Springs Chamber of Commerce to the dam dedication on Oct. 3, 1963. They sat on the second row.

QUITMAN — Oct. 3, 1963, is a date Nelda Kennedy will never forget. That was the day President John F. Kennedy came to Arkansas to dedicate the Greers Ferry Dam.

Nelda was 35, married with two children and the owner, along with her husband, the late Edward “Ed” Kennedy, of her family business, Plant Trucking Lines Inc. in Heber Springs.

“We received an invitation [to the dedication] from the [Heber Springs Area] Chamber of Commerce,” she said. “We took 12 families from the Little Rock area, as well as our kids, Sherry [Gassaway], who was 12, and Stan, who was 10. We sat on the second row.

“We had a blast,” said Nelda, now 85.

“JFK came across the dam riding in a convertible,” she said. “We all stood up as he came in. Several weeks later, he was shot. He could have been shot right here. He walked up [to the podium] and shook hands with people along the way.

“There was no special clearance to attend,” Nelda said. “There were Secret Service men everywhere. It made you nervous. You didn’t dare move. I’d never seen anything like it. It was tense, but nothing like it would be today.”

When asked if she remembered what the president had said, she laughed and said, “Lord, no.

“He was such a nice-looking man,” she added.

She does recall that box lunches were served after the president’s speech.

“He went over to the tent where the food was being served,” she said. “He was very casual about it. He didn’t tarry long.

“It’s something I’ll always remember,” she said. “I’m thankful I was able to be there. I’ll be there again this year for the 50th anniversary celebration of the dam’s dedication.”

Former President Bill Clinton will be the guest speaker this time, scheduled to

address the crowd at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at the John F. Kennedy Overlook, using the same podium that JFK used.

“Who could ever have imagined two presidents visiting Cleburne County?” Nelda asked. “This is really special.”

Nelda worked with Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas. She was a member of the Arkansas State Cosmetology Board as a consumer, having received the appointment from then-Gov. Frank White. She was reappointed by Clinton and served for a total of 21 years through the administration of Govs. Jim Guy Tucker and Mike Huckabee.

“He (Clinton) was one of the best friends I’ve ever had. I stood up to him a time or two, told him what I thought, but we became friends,” she said.

“He may not know me after all these years,” Nelda said of Clinton. “I hope to get to speak to him. He was good to me.”

With the help of her friend Kay Goss of Washington, D.C., who worked for Clinton during his tenure as both governor and president, Nelda once took a group of 200 people though the White House, “with cameras,” she said.

Goss will speak at noon Tuesday to members of the Rotary Club of Heber Springs, an organization Nelda has belonged to for 25 years.

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