November 18, 2013

From the archives: Reporter recalls Presidential excursion to John’s Island

By Maxwell L. Wiesenthal Evening Express Reporter

From the Portland Evening Express, Nov. 23, 1963

Evening Express Reporter Maxwell L. Wiesenthal covered President Kennedy’s weekend vacation visit to Maine in August 1962, as well as his 1959 visit to Augusta to speak to the Democratic Issues Conference and his flying visit to Lewiston the night before the Nov. 9, 1960 election. These are his recollections of Mr. Kennedy’s 1962 bachelor weekend.

President Kennedy had a ball on his vacation weekend to John’s Island in August 1962. He acted more like a tourist and less like a President.

The Secret Service men were certainly on the job in the Boothbay Harbor region, but they were an unobtrusive group. Area residents and visitors had real person-to-person contact with him when he came to Mass on the mainland.

Mr. Kennedy landed at the Burnswick Navel Air Station shortly after 6 p.m. on a drizzly Friday, Aug. 10.

Security was tight at the air base. In addition to the Secret Service, Navy and Marine guards, state and local police were out in force.

The President flew (to) John’s Island, off Pemaquid, the summer home of former heavyweight boxing champ Gene Tunney, and the public didn’t even get a glimpse of him until Sunday morning.

But a group of his friends did. They were summering at Dark Harbor on Islesboro, an island off Lincolnville. The President and his party, cruising through the coastal island from Christmas Cove to Dark Harbor, paid them an unexpected visit.

Newsmen following the Kennedy boat reported that the Secret Service men had “fits” because of the unexpected stop-off.

Sunday was a red-letter day for Boothbay Harbor residents. The President attended the 10 a.m. Mass at Our Lady Queen of Peace.

Crowds started gathering outside the church as early as 8 a.m. By 9 more than 300 jammed the church waiting to attend services with the President.

A small armada of sailing craft hovered in the sheltered harbor to watch while the President’s Coast Guard boat cruised to a lobster fisherman’s wharf to dock.

The President was 10 minutes late in arriving, so he hurried the 100 yards from the dock to the church, briefly acknowledging the cheers from the crowd. 

After the 42-minute service, he walked slowly down the steps of the church, accompanied by his sister, Mrs. Peter Lawford.

The Lincoln County downeasters pressed forward. Many youngsters and oldsters extended their hands. Some just touched his jacket.

It was a happy, proud, calm but tense crowd. Happy and proud because they were seeing the President of the United States in the flesh, most for the first time. Tense because they realized it was a historic occasion. 

Few uniformed police were in evidence. The Secret Service men were there, of course, but you couldn’t tell them from the newsmen or visitors.

I walked by the President’s side as he strolled down the middle of the street toward the boat, waving to those lined on the sidewalk and shaking hands with most anyone who extended it.

I was carrying a tape recorder on my shoulder but it could have been anything. No one bothered me. 

At one point a child darted from the crowd and handed the President a container of lobster meat. No one stopped her. 

As he reached the dock, he extended his hand to me, gave me a firm handshake and said, “It’s real nice to be back in Maine again.” I stammered something.

The Coast Guard cutter slowly moved away from the dock and the hundreds of small craft anchored in the harbor lined up behind the President’s vessel on an impromptu water parade.

As the Coast Guard cutter reached the mouth of the harbor, it pushed its engines full speed ahead and left the other craft in its wake as it sped toward John’s Island.

The Maine newsmen at Boothbay Harbor expressed wonderment at what appeared to be the lack of security around the President.

But the pros from Washington quieted our fears.

“Don’t worry,” they told us. “Those secret service boys are everywhere. They don’t miss much.”

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