Chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, peas, lime fruit salad, spiced pear, butter rolls, coffee, relishes, tomato juice, and “apple pie ala Democrat.”
Prepared by the St. Joseph Altar Society and served by the Girls Catholic High School, it was a meal fit for “a great senator,” the Hon. John F. Kennedy, as the banquet program stated.
This November marks the 60th anniversary of the 1959 Kennedy visit to Hays, an event that many in the area still remember, for all the excitement it stirred.
A Democratic oasis at that time in a state otherwise Republican, Hays and Ellis County welcomed the young Massachusetts senator for a short four- to five-hour visit, says Randy Gonzales, a Fort Hays State University history graduate student who gave a campus talk Thursday about the visit.
The senator arrived to a big splash: a live TV interview at KAYS studio, a press conference, a Main Street parade, and a fundraising banquet.
“The person who most facilitated that was Norbert Dreiling,” said Gonzales, referring to the longtime Hays Democrat who helped shape local, state and national politics for several decades, including leading delegations to the national Democratic conventions. Dreiling died in 2005 at the age of 80.
Gonzales' research for his Master’s Degree thesis looks in detail at the Hays visit and how it fit into Kennedy’s campaign strategy for the presidency to win delegates to the 1960 Democratic convention.
Kennedy’s Nov. 29 visit to Hays bumped the number of registered Democrats in Ellis County by 20 percent, said Gonzales, citing the text of a letter written by Dreiling to Kennedy’s campaign.
Gonzales' research, including interviews with Dreiling’s wife, Donna Jean, was aided by the Dreiling family, which allowed him access to Dreiling’s papers.
Dreiling predicted Kennedy in 1960 would take Ellis County two to one, and that the senator’s visits to the eastern part of the state would win him Kansas.
“Norbert Dreiling was half right, Kennedy did take Ellis County,” said Gonzales, speaking Thursday to Fort Hays State University faculty, staff and students in a classroom at Rarick Hall.
Prior to Hays, Kennedy had been in Salina, giving his stump speech to students at Marymount College.
Plans for the trip to Hays changed when it was realized Kennedy’s twin engine Convair named Caroline was too big for the grass airstrip east of town at 13th Street and Canterbury Road, Gonzales said.
“Norbert Dreiling arranges for Don Pratt, who has a plane, to fly from Hays to Salina and pick up Kennedy,” he said.
“He gets to the airport, there’s a band there, the Girls Catholic High students are there, they sing a song for him, it is all mapped out by Norbert Dreiling.”
Driven from the airport to the KAYS studio in a 1957 Oldsmobile 98, Kennedy met staunch Republicans Ed and Georgia Moore, who were on hand with their 12-year-old son, for a chance to shake hands with the senator. Dreiling, said Gonzales, told Kennedy that the Moore’s were likely the only Republicans he would meet during his Hays visit.
“Ed Jr. would not shake his hand,” said Gonzales. “Ed Jr. knew that their family were Republicans.”
At the Fort Hays press conference, Kennedy met Debate Coach Harold Stones, and campus Young Democrats President John Ivan.
The Main Street parade featured bands from St. Joseph Military Academy, Victoria High School and Jefferson West School, later renamed Kennedy Middle School.
Tickets to Friday’s banquet, titled “Kansas Democrats Salute A Great Senator,” were $10 for men, $8 for women, and $5 for students.
Originally planned for the cafeteria at Jefferson West School, the Friday evening banquet was moved to the gymnasium when 645 tickets were sold. With chicken fried steak on the menu, the evening’s program noted that the Bishop of the diocese had granted special dispensation to eat meat.
The apple pie dessert, noted on the menu as “ala Democrat,” was topped with cheddar cheese shaped like a donkey.
The evening’s memorable speech, said Gonzales, was a longwinded man who frustrated the audience when he didn’t yield the floor right away to Kennedy. Gonzales said his research failed to turn up the name of the man, but different sources did agree it was someone from Great Bend.
The most gratifying part of his research, Gonzales said, was interacting with the Dreiling family and telling their story.
“Because Norbert Dreiling contributed in so many ways to Ellis County in his lifetime,” he said. “I’ve been able in this thesis to tell part of that story.”