JOHN F. KENNEDY first mentioned the concept of the Peace Corps on the steps of the Student Union at the University of Michigan in the middle of a chilly October night in 1960. Kennedy’s brief speech was only a small but unexpected twist in a spirited political campaign, but it sparked surprising support for an idea that later became the Peace Corps. Earlier that night in New York, JFK and Richard Nixon had participated in the third televised presidential candidates’ debate. Normally, that confrontation would have dominated the news.
Right after the TV debate, Kennedy flew to Willow Run, in 1960 still Detroit’s main airport but actually only four miles from Yipsilanti and ten miles from Ann Arbor. His campaign staff was too optimistic about the travel logistics so the candidate arrived late. He delivered a short but set campaign speech at the airport that the bored reporters had heard many times. But the crowd was larger than expected and slowed down the motorcade that took the candidate to Yipsilanti where Kennedy gave the same standard speech at Eastern Michigan University. Most of the large crowd of students waiting there were too young to vote so his usual speech didn’t fit the audience very well. Nevertheless, the swarm of students stayed excited by his appearance and slowed him even more.
JFK was supposed to arrive around midnight at the University of Michigan Union where he and his entourage were scheduled to spend the night prior to several planned campaign stops the next day. He didn’t actually appear until after 2:00 am. The approach to the university-gothic style Union building includes a broad plaza with a few steps leading to the front door. Despite the late hour of the chilly October night, the plaza was packed with students who spilled over onto the lawn and out into State Street. The atmosphere among the heavily female crowd of expectant students was upbeat, like waiting for a pop star to appear. The female I was interested in at the time was a fellow freshman named Marsha McCann. While I’m sure much of the attraction for her was sincerely political, she was starry-eyed about JFK and was determined to see and hear him in person no matter how late.
In addition to people enduring the cold weather and late hour, the size of the crowd waiting for Kennedy was significant for another reason: The university required all undergraduate women to be in their dorms by 11:00 pm on weeknights. More than 1,500 eager young women (all of them except some married graduate students, and a few adult Democratic loyalists) were subject to punishment for breaking curfew but had decided to damn the consequences and stay out in the cold and wait. There were so many curfew violators that Marsha speculated the University couldn’t punish them all.
I came from an Eisenhower Republican family. Being a little distrustful of JFK, I would not have chosen to hang around for his speech if it had not been for Marsha’s persuasion.