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On September 17, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy took part in one of East Carolina's most pivotal events. After parading down 5th street in downtown Greenville, North Carolina, Kennedy found his way to College Stadium. Welcomed by over 20,000 people, the nominee focused his speech on life in North Carolina, specifically, local agricultural economics. Although Kennedy's rally was short-lived, his impact on East Carolina College and all of Eastern North Carolina was profound. The event was not only important for the Democratic campaign in the South, but also to the reputation of Dr. Leo Jenkins, president of East Carolina College. John F. Kennedy’s progressive legacy as 35th President of the United States would prove consistent with East Carolina’s ideals of working toward a better future for many years to come.


  • The Young Democrats Club welcomes Kennedy to Greenville with banners across 5th street.
  • At the rally, onlookers hold up signs provided by The Young Democrats Club.
  • JFK smiles for the press before the rally at College Stadium.
  • John F. Kennedy and Dr. Leo Jenkins meet at the rally for the democratic nominee.
  • The motorcade of John F. Kennedy parades down 5th street in Greenville, North Carolina.
  • Kennedy stands at a podium at East Carolina College in front of approximately 12,000 people.

     On Saturday, September 17, 1960, East Carolina hosted a rally for Presidential candidate - John F. Kennedy.1 After previously denying College President Dr. Leo Jenkins’ request to visit campus, Kennedy seized the opportunity to come visit Greenville, North Carolina.2 The Senator from Massachusetts declined Jenkins’ offer to speak on campus originally to focus on his campaign for the presidency; however, when the South became a more crucial part of the election, Kennedy found himself in Pirate Nation that very same year.3 This event was not only pivotal to the Kennedy campaign in North Carolina, but would also come to be known as a stipend of Jenkins’ presidency.

       Kennedy’s rally at East Carolina College could have not been possible without much collaboration among faculty, students, and politicians. The Young Democrats Club certainly played an important role in the rally itself. When Kennedy came down 5th street, a large banner created by club members greeted him.4 The club was also responsible for much of the positive propaganda found at the rally itself.5 The main collaboration, however, that made this event possible, was between Terry Sanford and Leo Jenkins. Sanford was running for governor during this time and was a known promoter of the Kennedy campaign. The preexisting relationship between these two men had a definite impact on Kennedy’s decision in scheduling a rally in Greenville. Joseph Steelmen, a history professor at East Carolina College, was also active in the efforts to get the Democratic nominee to Greenville. Not only did the professor write Mr. Kennedy several times urging him to visit Eastern North Carolina, but he also made a contribution to the campaign fund. From his letters, it becomes clear that Steelman thought that Senator Kennedy was not only an outstanding man, but the leader that North Carolina, and the entire country, needed.6 From the collaboration among so many great minds, it becomes evident that the rally that took place at College Stadium was not only important to the 1960 Democratic campaign, but also to the college itself.

          Senator Kennedy stood in front of approximately 12,000 people as he spoke at East Carolina College stadium.7 Kennedy catered his speech to different aspects of North Carolina living. The future president specifically focused on the positive impacts that his presidency would have on the agricultural economy of North Carolina.8  It becomes evident from his speech that Kennedy was speaking to the population in front of him. Namely, young, educated North Carolinians that valued their homeland and were intrigued to what the next president would do to preserve the traditional ideals of the state. The candidate directly stated that, “Here today in the richest and most productive tobacco country in the United States . . . we believe, as Franklin Roosevelt believed in his day, in an agricultural program that lifts the farmer up.”9 Kennedy may have only been in Greenville, North Carolina for one day, but his impact on the college itself extends far past twenty-four hours.

            With the tragic and untimely death of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, the entire world shook, including East Carolina College. Jenkins was especially shaken by the horrific event stating that, “He was part of this campus, being the only president ever to visit here.”10 Although some might look over Kennedy’s visit in 1960, it really played a formative part in what would become East Carolina University. Not only did this visit inspire donors to contribute to the future of East Carolina, it also provided income for local newspapers. David Whichard III, Greenville Daily Reflector Editor, made a great profit off of the newspaper story of Kennedy’s visit and would eventually donate to the college itself.11 Although the location where President John F. Kennedy spoke so many years ago might be easily overlooked today, the impact that his visit had on both East Carolina and the city of Greenville should not be ignored. Kennedy saw a great vision for this country and that very same image can be seen today in all that East Carolina University has flourished into since the day he set foot in College Stadium.

1“Kennedy and Leo Jenkins,” East Carolina University Digital 
Collections, September 17, 1960, accessed November 7, 2016, 
https://digital.lib.ecu.edu/17178

2“John F Kennedy Letter to Leo Jenkins,” East Carolina 
University Digital Collections, January 19, 1960, accessed November 1, 2016, 
http://digital.lib.ecu.edu/21608

3“Letter to JFK from Joseph Steelman, August 24, 1960,” 
East Carolina University Digital Collections, August 24, 1960, accessed 
November 1, 2016, https://digital.lib.ecu.edu/1912

4Hugh Morton, The Young Democrats Club Welcomes Senator 
John F. Kennedy to East Carolina College, photograph, 1960, Wilson Library, 
Chapel Hill, NC. 

5Don Sturkey, photograph, 1960, Wilson Library, Chapel Hill, NC. 

6“Letter to JFK from Joseph Steelman, October 6, 1960,” 
East Carolina University Digital Collections, October 6, 1960, accessed 
November 1, 2016, https://digital.lib.ecu.edu/1913.

7John Allen Tucker, John F. Kennedy’s North Carolina 
Campaign (Charleston: Arcadia, 2012), 2. 

8“Audio of John F. Kennedy campaign visit,” audio 
recording, East Carolina University Digital Collections (September 17, 1960), 
https://digital.lib.ecu.edu/11528 (accessed November 1, 2016). 

9“Audio of John F. Kennedy campaign visit,” audio 
recording, East Carolina University Digital Collections (September 17, 1960), 
https://digital.lib.ecu.edu/11528 (accessed November 1, 2016). 

10“John F. Kennedy Speech,” East Carolina University 
Digital Collections, November 1963, accessed November 1, 2016, 
https://digital.lib.ecu.edu/21016

11“University Historian Assesses the Significance of JFK 
Visit, 50 Years Later,” ECU News Services, August 25, 2010, accessed November 
3, 2016, http://www.ecu.edu/cs-admin/news/poe/2010/810/kennedy.cfm.