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Wisconsin For Kennedy

Eau Claire Author’s Latest Book Highlights Poignant Moments in JFK’s 1960 Wisconsin Primary Campaign
A campaign speech by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Field House. Reprinted by permission of Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-8118
A campaign speech by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Field House. Reprinted by permission of Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-8118

While much has been written about John F. Kennedy’s presidency, personal life, and tragic death, less is known of his 1960 primary race to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Of the various state primaries in which Senator Kennedy ran, perhaps none provided a better education for the future president than Wisconsin, where Kennedy spent three cold months sparring with Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. “I suppose there is no training ground for the Presidency,” Kennedy remarked in Milwaukee in 1962, “but I don’t think it’s a bad idea for a President to have stood outside of Mayer’s meat factory…at 5:30 in the morning with the temperature ten above.”

Wisconsin wasn’t only a “training ground” for the candidate, but a testing ground, too. The Wisconsin primary was destined to reveal answers to pressing political questions, including how an East Coast senator would fare in a head-to-head matchup with a popular Midwestern senator from “next door,” as well as whether Wisconsin Protestants were willing to vote for a Catholic. The stakes were high for both candidates. Senator Kennedy remarked that if he lost the Wisconsin primary, he would drop out of the race.

On April 5, 1960—primary day—Kennedy bested Humphrey with 56.5 percent of the vote, winning six of ten districts. It was hardly the knockout blow the Kennedy campaign had hoped for. In addition to squeaking out a victory, they also learned lessons from near defeat. Most importantly, that politics is always personal, and successful campaigning often requires a personal touch. While Senator Kennedy didn’t know every Wisconsinite by name, he understood the importance of learning as many names as possible. Even if, on occasion, Wisconsinites didn’t remember his.

One such encounter occurred on February 23, 1960, when Wisconsin state architect Karel Yasko was given last-minute instructions to introduce Senator Kennedy to a crowd of architects—which he did with little success. But Yasko’s faux pas inadvertently set into motion a beautiful example of Senator Kennedy’s quick wit, long memory, and personalized approach to reaching every voter.

Throughout my two years researching and writing Wisconsin for Kennedy, I was regularly struck by Senator Kennedy’s personal approach to campaigning throughout the state. Hardly a day goes by without an acquaintance stopping to regale me with their own Kennedy story. How they shook his hand outside a tire plant in Eau Claire, or at a diner in Marshfield, or outside a chapel in Beloit.

The Wisconsin primary didn’t just help propel Kennedy to the presidency; it shaped the president he would become.

"Wisconsin For Kennedy" by B.J. Hollars book cover

Excerpted from the new Wisconsin Historical Society Press book, Wisconsin for Kennedy, by B.J. Hollars

Chance Encounters

Karel Yasko and Ivan Nestingen | February 23, 1960

One month and thirteen days before the Wisconsin primary

Forty-eight-year-old Karel Yasko smiled as he listened to the laughter that filled the dining room of Madison’s Hotel Loraine. This was the perfect venue for the night’s festivities: the Wisconsin chapter of the American Institute of Architects annual convention. To the untrained eye, the ten-story hotel was a brick box on West Washington Avenue, but to Karel—Wisconsin’s newly hired state architect—it was a fine example of the Beaux Art tradition, which melded Tudor and Mediterranean styles. Completed in 1924, the Hotel Loraine was just one of the many achievements of Milwaukee-based architect Herbert Tullgren, who was famous for designing schools, hotels, and apartment buildings throughout the state.

As state architect, Karel had become adept at seeing the artistry in places others often overlooked. A different kind of artistry was required in pulling off a night like tonight. So far, everything was going as planned. State chapter members happily filled every white linen–covered table, exuding an air of opulence in their suits, ties, and dresses as the cocktail hour gave way to dinner.

Karel, who preferred a drafting table to a banquet table, nonetheless had agreed to serve as the evening’s emcee. Looking around the room, he was pleased to see that everyone was enjoying themselves. Maybe a little too much. But so what if his colleagues indulged a bit? If anything, it would help his jokes land with a bit more zing.

Yet the best joke of the night was the one Karel hadn’t prepared for.

Karel was sitting at the front table of the hotel dining room when a fellow architect and chapter committee member approached him. The committee member had learned that Jack Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, were staying just a few floors up with their campaign staff, and they were about to head out for a campaign event. Would it be all right, he asked Karel, if he invited the Kennedys to pay a quick visit to the architects?

That sounded wonderful, Karel said. Getting to meet a presidential candidate from either party was something he thought the architects in the room would appreciate.

The committee member went to find Ivan Nestingen, Madison’s mayor and chairman of the Kennedy for President Club of Wisconsin, and asked if the Kennedys, on their way out for the evening, might pop their heads into the dining room to say hello. He’d try, Ivan told him. Nothing fancy, though. Just a brief hello, a couple of handshakes, and maybe a few words if time permitted.

All that sounded fine to Karel, who guarded the secret while he waited for the famous couple to arrive.

The elevator doors opened, and a dapper Jack and a dazzling Jackie began their cinematic descent down the balcony stairs. It was a grand entrance that should have silenced the room—two famous and breathtakingly beautiful people dressed in their best, walking down the architectural world’s equivalent of the red carpet. But the architects at their tables—absorbed in their discussions and drinks—barely took notice. Except for Karel, who beamed as the Kennedys made their way toward the front of the room.

Later, Karel would wonder if the lack of attention the Kennedys received had something to do with the Republican-leaning crowd. For his own part, Karel welcomed them warmly, grasping Jack’s and Jackie’s hands and thanking them profusely for taking the time.

“Would you care to say a word or two to the architects of our state?” Karel asked.

Jack, who hadn’t even known who was in the room two minutes prior, happily agreed. He proceeded to give, as Karel would later describe it, “an extemporaneous, spontaneous talk on the responsibility of the architect to society. . . . He called it the exploding society, and that made a tremendous impact on those people, and I’m sure unwittingly he gained votes.”

Karel listened in awe. “The great regret of my life,” he would go on to say, “was that someone forgot to turn on the tape recorder.”

But that wasn’t his only regret of the evening. Because immediately before Jack’s speech, Karel would commit a blunder so memorable that its legend soon surpassed the speech itself.

Reaching for the microphone, Karel quieted the crowd and began his introduction.

“We have with us tonight a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president,” Karel said, “and I thought that you would like to see one in the flesh.”

The crowd chuckled.

“I introduce you to,” Karel began, “Senator Robert Kennedy!”

As Karel turned to pass the mic to Jack, the room erupted in uproarious laughter.

Confused, Karel replayed the introduction in his mind before realizing the terrible truth.

Had he said, Senator Robert Kennedy?

It was an innocent mistake, but it was mortifying.

A good-humored Jack accepted the mic with a grin. “Yesterday I was in Eau Claire,” Jack began, “and a nice old lady came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Kennedy, I’m so glad that your sons are taking an active part in public life. I think that’s wonderful.’ So I said, ‘Thank you, Madam, but I happen to be one of the sons, you’re talking about my father.’ ”

The laughter grew.

“Just before that I’d been up to Wausau where the skiing was pretty good, and some of the young people got around me and said it was wonderful that I found time to ski up there last weekend, and I had to tell them that was my brother Ted.”

Louder still.

“The best of all . . . was over in Sheboygan,” Jack continued, “and a very nice pair of ladies came up to me and said, ‘It’s wonderful that busy people like you can still find time to have a large family of children.’ So I just had to sadly tell her that was my brother Robert.”

By then, even Karel was laughing.

“And he took me off the hook so beautifully,” Karel later reflected.

If this had been Karel’s only encounter with Jack Kennedy, it would’ve made for a good story. But what happened next made for a better one.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

Karel’s family had stayed behind in Wausau when he’d taken the job in Madison, and every Friday night he flew back to see them. A few weeks after his embarrassing mishap at the Hotel Loraine, Karel was lounging in the all-but-empty Madison airport, waiting for the final flight of the night. Suddenly there was a slight commotion, as people gathered to get a glimpse of a plane that was taxiing toward the gate. Karel looked up. It was the Caroline.

No, Karel thought. Impossible.

He watched as campaign staff assembled, led by a man with a large cigar who turned out to be Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s future press secretary, along with Ivan Nestingen, whom Karel recognized from the Hotel Loraine, as well as several others.

It was freezing that night, about twenty degrees below zero. When Kennedy appeared moments later, he was hatless, his hands buried deep in the pockets of his thin blue topcoat, his shoulders raised toward his ears. Kennedy took a moment to chat with Ivan before his eyes drifted toward Karel on the opposite side of the room.

Karel tried making himself invisible, to little avail. Though they had only ever seen each other during those few embarrassing moments in the hotel ballroom, the look on Jack’s face confirmed he remembered everything.

Grinning, Jack strode in Karel’s direction.

Leaning forward, hand outstretched, he said, “Bobby Kennedy’s the name.”

Karel didn’t know whether to burst out laughing or drop dead on the airport floor.

“I’m sorry,” Karel said miserably, “for what happened that night.”

“You know,” Jack smiled, “the big problem is those three stories were true. I didn’t make them up, but they just seemed to fit.”

Jack excused himself to greet the twenty or so folks who’d gathered to see him (“I’m Jack Kennedy, and I’d appreciate your interest in the upcoming election”), and then—once the hobnobbing was complete—he turned back Karel’s way. By then, Karel had taken a seat on a hard bench, resting for the flight ahead. It was a little past ten o’clock, and after a long week, Karel was anxious to get home to his family. He wasn’t the only one in need of a rest.

Looking exhausted, Jack sank beside him, stretched out his legs, and said, “If I fall asleep, wake me up before my crew gets here.”

Karel promised the senator that he would.

Jack—who’d become adept at catching a few winks wherever he could—was asleep within seconds. Reclined on the bench, it was as if all the pressures of his presidential run suddenly faded. They sat there for some time, completely uninterrupted, as Karel tried to trace the strange circumstances that had led him to this moment. First, a chance run-in at the Hotel Loraine, and, now, a second run-in at the airport. Of all the ways the stars might’ve aligned, this seemed rather fortuitous. Karel was glad for the chance to brush shoulders with greatness, even if he’d paid the price with a bit of embarrassment along the way.

The minutes passed in silence until Karel spotted his plane taxiing toward the gate. Though he’d never woken a senator before, he figured a bit of humor might do the job.

Tapping the senator, Karel said, “Bob, Bob it’s time to go.”

Jack woke with his humor intact.

“Yes, Ted,” Jack grinned sleepily.

And then they were gone, both “Bob” and “Ted” moving their separate ways.

Contributors

B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently Midwestern Strange: Hunting Monsters, Martians and the Weird in Flyover Country, The Road South: Personal Stories of the Freedom Riders, and Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds.

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