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Steelhammer: A presidential visit to Powell Butte

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As I type these words, I'm looking at a print of a primitive-style painting that leans against my cubicle wall, depicting the side-by-side arrangement of the school and church I attended while growing up in the boondocks of Oregon.

A narrow lane separates Powell Butte Elementary School, where two grade levels were taught in each of its four classrooms, from Powell Butte Christian Church, where I went to Sunday school. Across the highway, the Powell Butte Store, not shown in the print, rounds out the community's business district.

In the painting, Powell Butte's biggest annual event -- the Lord's Acre Sale -- is in full swing. Held on the first Saturday in November, it's a fundraiser for the church, featuring a pit barbecue dinner and an auction in which donated quilts, candies, crafts, livestock, lumber and hay are sold.

On the first Saturday in November of 1959,the fall festival was visited by its best-known out-of-towners, John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, who were making a swing through the state to test the waters for a run at the Democratic presidential nomination.

In this Republican stronghold, Jackie, with her quiet, dignified demeanor and striking good looks -- and her purchase of a quilt made by Powell Butte resident Nola Yates -- may have made a bigger impression on the crowd than JFK. At any rate, Kennedy announced his candidacy two months later, and the couple's Lord's Acre appearance was talked about for many years to come.

Four years after JFK's local appearance, I was a student at my county's sole junior high school, walking toward the cafeteria at lunchtime, when a classmate jogging from the opposite direction broke the news. "Have you heard? Kennedy's been shot! Someone machine-gunned him!"

While the last part of the unofficial news flash was incorrect, the rest turned out to be true.

For the next couple of hours, we stayed in our classrooms, whispering, speculating, and in some cases, sobbing, while our teachers darted in and out of the hallway for nervous conferences and the principal passed on tidbits of news of the shooting's aftermath over the PA system.

The sinking feeling of unease and uncertainty about the country's well-being that accompanied me on the bus ride home that day was not repeated until Sept. 11, 2011.

Life, as it turned out, is a blend of harmony and tragedy, hope and fear.

Today, 50 years after JFK's sudden, tragic death, I'm sticking with harmony.

 I look at the idyllic scene of my old school and church, with the community's namesake pine-studded landmark, Powell Butte, rising in the background. It's comforting to see the familiar places, and think about the people who occupied them, including, for a brief moment, the man we remember today.


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