Fifty years after his assassination, southern West Virginia still mourns the loss of President John F. Kennedy and remembers the candidate for president who came to Logan and Mingo Counties.
In F. Keith Davis’ book, West Virginia Tough Boys, Vote Buying, Fist Fighting and a President named JFK, the story of the 1960 presidential primary campaign is told through the eyes of those who were there to meet the promising young candidate.
Claude Ellis, Raymond Chafin and Dan Dahill were the Tough Boys, who grew up in rough and poverty stricken southern West Virginia, then grew in political power.
According to the book, Kennedy is quoted as telling Chafin, “If you’ll be for me, you’ll never regret it. I’ll help these people. I can help them greatly. I can help you too.”
Claude Ellis was chosen for the lead role in the John F. Kennedy for President drive. His wife, Rose formed a Ladies Club for Kennedy and the ladies formed a circle as well. They had coffee socials, tea parties and other activities.
Ellis, along with Bill Abraham, Tom Godby, Dan Dahill, Alex DeFobio were committed to the campaign and took Kennedy all over Logan County.
Kennedy was described as larger than life and his empathic speech at a rally by the courthouse in Logan won the hearts of many as he promised to send assistance to the people of Appalachia.
Kennedy continued on a whirlwind state campaign where he was met at nearly every step along the way with what was described as “an unusual amount of kindness, if not unbridled enthusiasm.”
Carmelo “Mel” Cottone was asked to escort the Kennedys in West Virginia. After the primary, Cottone went from volunteer to advance man on the payroll. He made all the arrangements for the candidate, which included getting hotels, sites for him to speak, equipment and set up and arranging for protection by local law enforcement.
Cottone was born at Whitman, lived at Mount Gay, went to Logan High School, Marshall University and was the son of a coal miner.
“I loved him,” Cottone says of Kennedy. “He just had this ability to relate to the common guy. One time, he met with some coal miners between shifts. At first, they wouldn’t shake his hand. But he sat down on a rail outside the mine and asked them about their economic situation and job security, and when he was done, one of the miners stood up and said, ‘I want to shake hands with a president.’ ”
Kennedy won the West Virginia primary with 61 percent of the vote.
The first executive order signed by Kennedy provided for an expanded program of food distribution to needy families.
Cottone said on the day President Kennedy died, he was working on plans for the 1964 re-election campaign at the Democratic National Committee, which was two blocks from the White House and he was on the way to the White House for lunch.
“There was nowhere in the world that you could have more fun and enjoy yourself than at the White House when the president wasn’t there. There was no security and the staff had the run of the place. On the way there, I had stopped about a block away at the Merrill Lynch office and while I was there, a fellow ran in and said the president’s been shot. I ran to the White House and ran to a friend of mine. We were in shock. We cried. Our world fell apart. After that, I don’t remember. It was like we were in shock. What I did with the rest of the staff people at the White House is just a blank. It was a long afternoon and evening for me, knowing that the president had been shot and I was in the White House.”
Cottone said Kennedy loved West Virginia and never forgot how important West virginia was to him.
“West Virginia lost a friend when they lost Kennedy,” said Cottone. “For a rich guy, he realized what the problems were in West Virginia. Between 1950 and 1960, West virginia lost 1,360,000 people and went from six congressmen down to three. The talent in West Virginia left. The economy was down. Unemployment was high. There was no food stamp program, no welfare program and Kennedy really was impressed with the need in West Virginia. He would have done a lot more for economic development and highways. He really wanted to help the people of West Virginia. They touched his heart. When he went from house to house down there and saw the conditions, it really moved him to want to do things. I really believe that.”
After President Kennedy’s death, Cottone went on to do advance work for Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 campaign, Robert F. Kennedy and Edmund Muskie. He also earned his law degree and practiced law in Washington for 40 years. He and his wife live in Boca Raton, where he continues to speak and lecture on his experiences in Washington.
“I go to church on Sunday and say I can’t believe what grace I had to enjoy meeting Frank Sinatra, meeting Truman, going to the inaugural balls,” said Cottone. “For a kid who was born in a coal camp house at Whitman West Virginia to fly on Air Force One, I took my father to the oval office and he sat in the president’s chair. I shudder at the magical life I had with President Kennedy, President Johnson, and all the rest of them.”
On Nov. 22, anyone old enough to remember that day will take a moment to recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard the tragic news of a great leader taken way too soon.
But for Cottone, it’s constant.
“I don’t wait for Nov. 22, I remember it every day,” he said.