This story is part of a special section marking 50 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. See more here and complete coverage in today's World-Herald.
John F. Kennedy looked confident and at ease as he sat on a backyard patio near 90th and Hickory Streets in Omaha, surrounded by dozens of reporters, photographers and adoring Democrats.
On this day in August 1959, the telegenic U.S. senator from Massachusetts wasn't running for president — at least, not officially. It wouldn't be revealed until much later that in a private meeting at the home minutes earlier, JFK and statewide supporters had secretly mapped plans for him to enter Nebraska's potentially pivotal 1960 Democratic primary.
At some point while the youthful pol gazed off into the crowd, a photographer hired by the Kennedy family raised his camera and snapped a picture.
It was but a moment in time. But captured in that vivid frame was a photograph that would become one of the most reproduced and recognizable images of Kennedy — one whose use would fatefully frame both the hopeful beginnings of his campaign and the tragic end of his life.
Within months that picture would appear on JFK buttons, bumper stickers and campaign posters as he campaigned across the country.
In July 1960 it was printed on delegate buttons and splashed over the convention hall as Kennedy accepted his party's nomination.
It would appear on red-ribboned buttons at Kennedy's Jan. 20, 1961, inauguration.
And then after the awful day in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, it would appear on the prayer cards given to mourners at his funeral.
John F. Kennedy was never the people's choice in Republican-leaning Nebraska. But as the nation prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination, one can find a surprising amount of Nebraska history surrounding the nation's 35th president.
A number of former Nebraskans held high positions in his administration, including his special counsel, his personal secretary and the White House social secretary.
Kennedy traveled to Nebraska at least 10 times, ranking among the most trips any president made to the state over his lifetime. The vast majority of Kennedy's trips came as he maneuvered to capture the state's convention delegates and secure his party's nomination.
It was during one of the earliest of those Nebraska trips that photographer Jacques Lowe shot that iconic Kennedy picture. It's an image whose unique roots in Omaha and Nebraska and wide use were little known and — until now — largely forgotten.
With the approach of the 1960 election year, many considered John F. Kennedy a long shot. His record in the Senate was undistinguished compared with the records of some of his main opponents for the Democratic nomination, Senate colleagues Lyndon Johnson of Texas, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Stuart Symington of Missouri. And, of course, he was Catholic, a historic disqualifier in a national election.
As Kennedy and his advisers charted a course for garnering the delegates needed to win the nomination, Nebraska would become part of their calculus.
At the time, a little more than a dozen states held primary elections, most states selecting their convention delegates in caucuses made up of party stalwarts. Even some states with primaries had governors who had declared themselves candidates, fencing off their states from other contenders.
Nebraska had a wide-open primary. Kennedy saw in the farm state the potential to show party leaders across the country his grass-roots appeal.
Kennedy first came to Nebraska in 1957 to speak in Omaha and Lincoln, and he returned in 1958 to press the flesh at a meeting of Midwestern Democrats — both visits sowing the seeds for the campaign to come.
In 1959 he was ready to put together an organization. Kennedy talked to Bernard Boyle, the cigar-chomping Nebraska Democratic national committeeman and a man known for holding major political gatherings on the sweeping lawn of his home in Omaha's far-west suburbs. A date was set: Aug. 9.
As on most of his Nebraska visits, Kennedy was accompanied that day by Ted Sorensen, the Lincoln native who to the end served as one of JFK's most trusted advisers. Also on the flight was Jacques Lowe.
Joe Kennedy, JFK's father and the patriarch of the Kennedy political dynasty, had hired the talented freelancer to shoot pictures of his family, with politics in mind.
Joe Kennedy was ahead of his time in recognizing the power of pictures and words in marketing a candidate. “We're going to sell Jack like soap flakes,'' he once declared.
Lowe later called the trip to Omaha his “first unofficial campaign trip'' with JFK. During it he would shoot among the first of tens of thousands of JFK images he would capture over the next four years.
Some among the 400 Nebraska Democrats who attended the Sunday fried-chicken picnic later recalled what a beautiful day it was, the sun highlighting the red in Kennedy's hair. They noticed the Bostonian's accent and the funny way he pronounced the name of the state — “Nebrasker.''
But they also were wowed by his intelligence, sense of humor and charm.
Kennedy had arrived well before the gathering, huddling with two dozen top Democrats on the back porch. According to an oral history Boyle later provided to the Kennedy Library, this is where Kennedy and his supporters worked out many of the nuts and bolts of his Nebraska campaign.
Many of Kennedy's earliest backers in Nebraska had been fellow Irish Catholics, from Omaha, including John “Red'' Munnelly and Jim Green, who were in the room that day. But to show Kennedy's broad appeal, it was decided Hans Jensen of Aurora, a Protestant farmer, would head the campaign.
Then while comfortably seated on a stone patio, Kennedy held a press conference with local reporters. He brushed off questions about whether he would run for president, saying it had been discussed only “in a general way'' during the private gathering. But at the same time, he talked up the Nebraska primary, calling it a key one that everyone seeking the presidency should compete in.
While Kennedy fielded questions, Lowe moved around the fringes of the gathering, capturing images.
On Jan. 2, 1960, Kennedy made it official, declaring he would seek his party's nomination. Less than three weeks later, he made a surprise visit to Omaha. He announced he would compete in the state's primary and then challenged other Democratic hopefuls to join the race.
As Kennedy campaigned around the country, many of the JFK signs and buttons that began popping up bore a striking profile of Kennedy — one that Lowe shot in Omaha.
It's a remarkably crisp and clear image, the sun glistening off Kennedy's hair, his silhouette standing out from the reporters and photographers in the background.
During the campaign, Kennedy worked hard to win over Nebraska Democrats. He set up the most extensive county organization seen to date in a Nebraska primary. He made at least five Nebraska trips after the Boyle picnic, including one that took him from Lincoln to Scottsbluff. At other times he sent brothers Robert and Edward and his mother, Rose, to campaign on his behalf.
In the Nebraska vote on May 10, Kennedy won big, capturing 18 Nebraska delegates to six for all other contenders combined. But the state didn't become the proving ground he had once hoped.
Possibly due to the big head start Kennedy and his machine had gotten, his opponents largely bypassed the state. Instead, it was West Virginia, a highly contested Protestant state that held its primary on the same day as Nebraska, that would propel Kennedy toward the nomination — and ultimately the presidency.
During the general election, Kennedy visited Nebraska only once, showing off his national security credentials at the Strategic Air Command. It was generally accepted Nebraska would go for Richard Nixon, who ultimately won 62 percent of the state's votes.
After the election, Lowe published a book detailing his campaign travels with JFK, featuring the Omaha image on the cover and inside. The book may have marked the first time the photo was published in its original form, including the news media members in the background.
Tragically, two years later, the picture would find another use.
After Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, preparations were made for a state funeral. It was Jacqueline Kennedy who chose the picture snapped in Omaha to grace the prayer cards at her husband's Mass.
Over the past half-century, the picture's history had largely been lost. In fact, it may have remained lost had it not been for another horrific event: 9/11.
Jacques Lowe had stowed nearly all his negatives in a vault in the World Trade Center. When the towers came crashing down, the negatives were lost. Only his contact sheets — small, printed images that show what was on the negatives — survived, kept at another location.
As the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination approached, the Newseum in Washington, D.C., asked Lowe's estate about putting together a JFK photo exhibit. Restoration experts at the Newseum worked painstakingly to produce large, high-quality digital images from Lowe's old contact sheets.
When it came time to decide what pictures to put in the exhibit, one particularly stood out, said Newseum photo editor Sarah Mercier. In fact, the Omaha image was picked to be the signature for the project, featured on a large marquee at the front of the museum and used in promotional materials.
The Newseum also released the picture to media outlets, which have given it considerable run leading up to the anniversary of Kennedy's assassination.
The Newseum liked that the Omaha picture was not only striking but featured news media members, too, Mercier said. But more than anything, she said, it was Jacqueline Kennedy's selection of the picture for her husband's prayer cards a half-century ago that truly elevates its historic status.
“She felt it reflected something about him that she wanted people to see,'' Mercier said. “Her making that choice really validates the image.''
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