JFK: Friend of the Valley

WHEELING – Fifty years ago today, America lost a president – but John Chernenko felt he lost a friend, too.

Virtually everyone who is old enough to remember Nov. 22, 1963, the day Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository Building in Dallas, can recall precisely what they were doing when they heard the news.

Chernenko is no different – but even though many Americans felt like they knew Kennedy, Chernenko could make that claim as convincingly as anyone in the Ohio Valley.

As chairman of the Brooke County Democrat Executive Committee during the 1960 election, Chernenko met Kennedy several times, bought into the young senator’s vision for America and worked hard to convince area voters to do likewise. Future first lady Jacqueline Kennedy even was a guest at the Chernenko home just months before Kennedy announced his bid for the White House, and in 1961, Kennedy rewarded Chernenko’s support with an appointment as U.S. marshal for the Northern District of West Virginia.

Of his relationship with Kennedy, Chernenko said, “It made a different person out of me. I had more compassion for the poor than I ever had in my life. And a lot of that was because of my association with President Kennedy.”

Chernenko was working in Wheeling in his capacity as marshal on the afternoon of the assassination. He and one of his deputies were returning to the downtown Federal Building after lunch as the news spread that Kennedy had been shot as his motorcade traveled through Dallas.

Upstairs, an office secretary said the president had been shot in the head, and asked Chernenko – a World War II veteran who had seen plenty of violence and had himself been shot twice – whether he thought there was any hope for Kennedy.

“I said, ‘He’s dead,'” Chernenko recalled. “I was just like everybody else. I knew he couldn’t survive.”

Today, the now 89-year-old Chernenko still cherishes his memories and mementoes of the Kennedy years, including photos from several appearances in the Ohio Valley, and a copy of the oral history he gave in 1964 that is now a part of the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

He vividly recalls Kennedy’s campaign stop in Weirton at the Thomas E. Millsop Community Center in May of 1960, and his 1962 appearance in Wheeling, during which he told the crowd that West Virginia was “the state which sent him out into the world.”

Chernenko said Kennedy did much for the Ohio Valley, supporting the coal and steel industries, and helping ensure the Interstate 70 connector would be built across the Northern Panhandle.

He first met Kennedy in May 1959 at a function in McDowell County, W.Va. Though many doubted the young senator’s prospects as a Catholic in heavily Protestant West Virginia, Chernenko recalled he “could feel it in the air that they wanted Kennedy” for president.

A smaller group, including Chernenko, met Kennedy after his appearance. Moonshine was passed around in fruit jars. Chernenko asked Kennedy if he would visit Brooke County, and the senator replied that he would.

Kennedy made good on his promise that fall, traveling to Wellsburg with wife Jacqueline in October 1959. Chernenko’s wife, Kay, hosted a gathering of dozens of women at their home, where the future first lady made quite an impression over tea.

Meanwhile, Chernenko and other local Democrat leaders met with Kennedy at the Wellsburg Elks Country Club, where the attendance of more than 450 exceeded everyone’s expectations.

After Kennedy officially announced his candidacy in early 1960, the local committee was split between the young senator from Massachusetts and veteran Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota.

“We did a lot of work for (Kennedy),” Chernenko said. “It just took a lot of talk.”

Chernenko recalled how Kennedy’s support for labor resonated in the blue-collar Ohio Valley.

“At that time, the coal mines were down, and even the steel mills were down. They had big layoffs,” he said.

Another key to Kennedy’s magnetism was an uncanny knack for remembering virtually anyone he’d met, Chernenko said.

Chernenko recalled a trip to Washington with his wife to meet with Kennedy during the 1960 campaign. They had just left a Howard Johnson’s after eating lunch, and heard a car horn blow.

It was Kennedy, driving a convertible. He stopped, called the Chernenkos by name and asked what they were doing in Washington. They shook hands, and Chernenko replied that he was to meet with Kennedy the following day.

Chernenko figures the exchange took no more than a minute or two.

“By that time, there must have been about 40 or 50 people around that convertible,” he recalled.

Three days after Kennedy was shot, Chernenko was among several locals who traveled to Washington for the state funeral. As a marshal, he was able to get closer than most to the first family.

For the vast majority of Americans, the image of John F. Kennedy Jr. on his third birthday, saluting his father’s flag-draped casket as the funeral procession passed by, is indelible – but in grainy black and white. Chernenko saw the iconic moment in living color.

When Kennedy died, Chernenko said, “I lost a friend. The whole world lost a friend. It hurt me.”

After Kennedy’s assassination, Chernenko faithfully supported the new president, Lyndon Johnson. But looking back, he’s convinced that had Kennedy lived, he would easily have won a second term, and the course of American history – particularly the tragedy of the Vietnam War – would have been much different.

Southeast Asia “liked Kennedy. That whole area loved him. … He would have handled it a lot better,” Chernenko said.