Fifty years ago this week, on Nov. 8, 1960, John F. Kennedy was swept into office in a tight race with Richard Nixon.

A half-century later, it seems the news media can't get enough of this nostalgic story. Little wonder: It had major repercussions for the state of political life in the United States.

Like our elections last week, the pendulum swung in Washington and around the country as the party out of power suddenly gained strength and a new voice. I was there — kind of.

At the time I was an undergraduate student at a college in the Midwest, and one of my extracurricular roles was to serve as the news director for WETN, the college radio station.

During the days before the election, I had the opportunity to cover both candidates as they made campaign swings though northern Illinois. Then Vice President Nixon was invited to our campus in the Republican stronghold of DuPage County, and as the accompanying photo shows, I covered the event while the vice president ascended the stairs to give his stump speech. From the crowd that day and with the enthusiasm for his candidacy, there was little doubt in my mind that Nixon would make a strong showing on Election Day.

Then I learned that Sen. Kennedy from Massachusetts was also coming to our area — not to our campus, but to a small high school gymnasium several miles away. As would any good reporter, I tried to find out why he wasn't invited to our community as a show of impartiality.

I asked many of the people in authority on our campus, but most simply shrugged their shoulders, mumbling something about Kennedy being both Catholic and a Democrat. Still, to their credit, the administration approved coverage by our WETN staff of the Kennedy appearance, but on one condition: No college funds were to be used.

The Democratic Party was to pick up the tab for the telephone line from the campaign event to our college radio transmitter so anyone who lived close enough could pick up the signal. With that approval, my student colleagues and I were determined to make up the best political news team that high school gym had ever seen.

When Kennedy finally arrived at the high school, he was two hours late. My student colleagues and I had been filling radio airtime with banal conversation, and we were tired. The crowd was restless, and some had drifted away. Even Sen. Kennedy seemed weary as he entered the gym.

Then, to my amazement, he began to change, energized by the chaotic, but enthusiastic, reception he received. Security was almost non-existent, and the crowd began to press in upon him. Scores of people scrambled onto the stage, and others fell off near where the press was positioned.

It seemed everyone was shoving and pushing their way to get close to Camelot. Later, our college yearbook called the evening "the most significant broadcast of the year for WETN."

As the evening wound down, I wasn't so sure that Nixon had this one locked up after all. A few days later the nation spoke in one of the tightest presidential elections in our history: John F. Kennedy was elected to the White House; history was made; and I learned that being a broadcast journalist was not for me.

In fact, I decided right then to go into college teaching and leadership.

That way I could prepare the next generation of college students to think analytically about politics — and avoid the pressure of having to talk to fill dead air.

I'm still at it, but some would say it's gotten tougher every year.

• • •

R. Judson Carlberg is the seventh president of Gordon College in Wenham. He came to Gordon in 1976 as the academic dean and became president in 1992. He will retire in June 2011.

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