Sept. 27, 1963: The Day the President Came to Tacoma

President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech addressing the joint convocation of Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Puget Sound on September 27, 1963. The buttons below link to PLU archival materials and other key resources. Scroll down to read a summary of the president’s address and view photos and documents from the PLU Archives.

Lutes and Loggers Fill Cheney Stadium

A sunny September morning in 1963 saw US president John F. Kennedy touching down in Cheney Stadium, arriving amid an eager crowd of as many as 25,000, according to News Tribune estimates. Kennedy met Pacific Lutheran University and University of Puget Sound presidents Robert Mortvedt and R. Franklin Thompson, and was flanked by two rows of university professors as he exited the helicopter–a security strategy and an opportunity for these faculty to get close glimpses of Kennedy. He took the podium and delivered a 13-minute address in honor of the convocation of both universities.

President Kennedy walks alongside PLU President Mortvedt and UPS President Thompson through the crowd of students, faculty, and community members.
Governor Albert Rosellini introduces speakers as President Kennedy looks on

A Message of Hope to Tacoma's Youth

The president’s speech focused on the importance of preserving and nurturing the potential of both student minds and the Northwest’s natural resources. His resounding message stressed the role of education in meeting the sociopolitical and environmental problems facing the nation. Kennedy’s optimism energized the crowd, as when he sketched out his rosy vision for the coming years: “I want to see…the best brains we have meeting the most difficult problems this country has ever faced.” He described his tour of the American west as a “trip of conservation” and urged “the talented and able people of this state [to] make the judgments on recreation and conservation and wise use of our resources now with a long look forward, not for this decade, but for the next generation.” Eerily, Kennedy’s words were likely informed by his visit to the Hanford nuclear site the previous day, which at the time seemed to promise an exciting future in renewable, US-made energy, and would prove to be environmentally disastrous.

So the assignment, it seems to me, in the 1960s, is to produce all of the educated talent we have, not merely to produce outstanding businessmen, though we need them, and lawyers, though we need them, but also to produce men and women with a sense of the public responsibility, the public duty.

–President Kennedy

A Bittersweet Memory

For all the crowd’s awe and enthusiasm over being, briefly, within yards of the president, memories of this event would take on a more tragic significance after Kennedy’s assassination less than two months later. PLU president Mortvedt reflected in a university bulletin that “[h]is fine mind can no longer range over the political and social problems of mankind, cutting to the marrow of reality as he saw it. … He gave a part of himself to the people of Tacoma and to the students attending the two Universities which were fortunate enough to be his hosts.”

President Kennedy addresses the crowd of energized young people.


Click on each photo to view the image in the PLU Archives database.

Video and writing credit: Gracie Anderson