John F. Kennedy never visited Vancouver. Unlike rival Richard Nixon, who drew thousands of admirers for a speech in front of the Clark County Courthouse on Sept. 13, 1960, the Democratic presidential candidate didn’t campaign here.
So what about the photograph of JFK, with two campaign buttons on his lapel, receiving the key to the city from Miss Vancouver?
That ceremony actually took place in Portland, Carol Snyder said. Back then, she was Carol Erlandson — and she was Miss Vancouver.
Kennedy had booked a campaign speech in Portland on Sept. 7, 1960, and local boosters decided to become part of the event. Vancouver civic leaders had planned to give Kennedy the key to the city after his Portland speech.
“We thought there would be a quick opportunity backstage. He rushed past us,” Snyder recalled.
“So everybody hopped in a car and went to Portland International Airport. I caught him there, and we visited for a while” before Kennedy had to board his plane, she said.
Local Chamber of Commerce leader Manny Helm also is in the photo, at the left of the frame. Helm, who died in 2006, was Clark County’s First Citizen in 1959 and also served as emcee of several Miss Vancouver competitions during the 1950s.
Despite the rush to get out of the auditorium, Snyder and her mother, Margaret Erlandson, were able to spend some time with Kennedy at PDX.
“We talked for 15 or 20 minutes. My mom thought that Kennedy was very charismatic, and he was fun to talk to. We talked about his family,” said Snyder, who was a senior at Fort Vancouver in 1960. “He said if we got to the White House, he would give us a personal tour. I was impressed with that.”
Ron Zollo was another Vancouver teen who was at the auditorium to hear Kennedy that day.
“My dad basically bribed me,” Zollo said. Their evening would include a side trip to a restaurant near the auditorium. “He told me he’d buy me a pastrami sandwich.”
At Kennedy’s speech, “I figured I’d be bored,” Zollo, who was a student at Hudson’s Bay High School in 1960, said. “But I started listening and he caught my attention — which was not easy to do.”
A few days later, Miss Vancouver participated in another key-to-the-city presentation when Nixon held his campaign rally in Vancouver. Other notables included Pat Nixon, the vice president’s wife, as well as Oregon governor Mark Hatfield and his wife, Antoinette.
Maybe it was the excitement generated by the crowd in front of the courthouse — estimated at 6,000 — but Nixon came across differently than his campaign rival, Snyder said.
“He was hyper, and Kennedy was very relaxed,” she said.
At the conclusion of Nixon’s speech, Snyder handed Nixon the oversized key labeled “VANCOUVER WN.”
It was the same key Miss Vancouver had presented to Kennedy six days earlier. That’s because Vancouver only had the one key.
“When we gave Nixon the key to the city, I was supposed to keep the key. It was just a photo prop. Nixon decided he would take the key,” Snyder said.
“My chaperone and the people with the Chamber of Commerce kept yelling, ‘Get that key! Get that key!'” she said.
It became something of a tug-of-war, Snyder said.