CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fifty years ago today, Earl Ray Tomblin was 11 years old, in the sixth grade, at lunch in Logan County.
"I remember being on the playground at East Chapmanville grade school," Tomblin, now West Virginia's 35th governor, said earlier this month. "That's back when they first came out with the little transistor radios and one of my classmates heard it on the news that the president had been shot and he was blurting it out that they shot Kennedy and of course none of us knew what to do.
"They gathered us in school and a short time later sent us home because it was just a whole nation, everyone, turning on the TV. I remember going home, watching on TV what was going on and the whole nation was in disbelief the president had been shot."
If any part of the country can be said to have mourned the killing of President John F. Kennedy more deeply than others, it may be West Virginia. Kennedy came here dozens of times and what he saw left an indelible impact on him and his presidency. Many of the issues that dominated his campaign persist today.
"He had done so much for West Virginia," said Pete Thaw, who coordinated Kennedy's 1960 campaign in Tyler County. "He was very taken with the poverty here. He had never seen poverty like he saw in Southern West Virginia.
"The president really loved West Virginia and it was a big loss to us," said Thaw, now Kanawha County school board president. "It's a terrible, terrible thing. I'm sorry the anniversary's coming up. They're making all these TV shows. I won't watch them, I can't watch them."
In an age before Twitter, before the Internet, before text alerts, the Marshall University student newspaper posted flyers all over campus saying the president had been killed.
"Everybody was shocked, stunned, that was all that was talked about. Things came to a standstill," said Jack Dickinson, a Marshall student who had briefly met Kennedy three years before. "We felt that he was an extraordinary person."
Kennedy was and still is the youngest president America has ever elected. He was a dashing, nationally beloved war hero with a glamorous wife and two young children. His average approval rating is still the highest in the history of the Gallup poll. He's the only president whose approval rating never dropped below 50 percent.
Carmelo "Mel" Cottone, a West Virginian born in the coal camp of Whitman, had begun working for Kennedy in 1960 and was a block from the White House when the president was shot.
"The Kennedys brought youth and vigor to the office," Cottone said. "In his three short years, thousands of young people volunteered for the Peace Corps. He really rejuvenated the interest in going into government service."
But it was not always the case.
Kennedy in West Virginia
Kennedy arrived in West Virginia as a young, rich senator with a religion that had people questioning whether his loyalties lay with the United States or with Rome. He left as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
On May 9, 1959, Kennedy spoke in Welch, at the McDowell County Democratic dinner.
He had landed at Mercer County Airport near Princeton that afternoon. He had lunch in Bluefield, shook hands at a hotel, was driven to a rally at the courthouse in Welch and then left to visit a coal mine.
It was his fourth trip to the Mountain State. The presidential election was 18 months away, but that night Kennedy denied that he was an active candidate and many believed him.
In the next day's Sunday Gazette-Mail, Don Marsh wrote, "The speech climaxed a busy day for the multi-millionaire lawmaker who looks more like the rage of the teen-age set than like a leading contender for his party's presidential nomination."
Kennedy formally announced his candidacy eight months later on Jan. 2, 1960.
He won the first contested primary, in Wisconsin, but -- crucially to a nation wary of his Catholicism -- lost the districts dominated by Protestants.
The true test of his candidacy would come a month later in the West Virginia primary, where Catholics were only about 5 percent of the population.
"The state was 90 something percent Protestant and he had to prove that a Catholic could win," Cottone said. "That was the critical issue in West Virginia."
"What happens to me in the West Virginia primary could tell really whether I'm going to be nominated," Kennedy said in Charleston on Feb. 6, 1960, the day he officially entered the primary.
Kennedy visited West Virginia 21 times in 1960, including 17 times in the month before the primary, according to archives compiled by the state Division of Culture and History. (His wife Jackie came seven times; his brothers Bobby and Ted came 15 and 20 times, respectively; his sisters Jean Kennedy Smith and Eunice Kennedy Shriver came once and twice, respectively; and his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver came once.) He made 96 campaign stops in the Mountain State, visiting 63 different cities and towns.
He went north to Weirton and south to Bluefield, east to Charles Town and west to Kenova. He came to Charleston 14 times, but also visited tiny mining towns like Itmann, Omar and Slab Fork.
He also funneled plenty of money to local party bosses, especially in Southern West Virginia, for their help in putting him atop their "slates" of candidates.
Kennedy's whirlwind tour of the state was organized by Bob McDonough, a printer from Parkersburg. They'd met at the 1956 Democratic convention and McDonough spent two years planning Kennedy's month in West Virginia.
Kennedy stopped in Crum, in Wayne County, on April 25, 1960.
Jack Dickinson, a junior at the time, played first trumpet in the Crum High School band, where his father was the principal.
"As the motorcade came in and they got out, we played 'Hail to the Chief,'" Dickinson said. "Then they all went in my dad's office and asked him how far it was to the next town.
"Looking into his eyes, I felt like there was something there that average people did not have, you can call it an aura or a quality."
That same day Kennedy stopped in Logan County, where 8-year-old Earl Ray Tomblin lived.
"He stopped at the crossroads. It was a big Trailways bus," Tomblin remembered. "Of course the Chapmanville High School band was out playing and just really the kind of excitement of everything that was going on, for an 8-year-old was really kind of something. I'd never seen a presidential candidate.