A rain-soaked but inspiring speech by the 35th president helped the 35th state mark its 100th birthday.
President John F. Kennedy, whose all-out campaigning in West Virginia during the 1960 Democratic primary helped propel him to the White House, visited the state on June 20, 1963, to pay tribute to its citizens and celebrate its centennial.
Kennedy delivered a rousing speech from the steps of the state Capitol to more than 5,000 assembled onlookers. Some had spent more than three hours waiting in a downpour of cool summer rain to hear the nation's chief executive.
"The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do, and I'm delighted to be here," Kennedy told the cheering throng in his distinctive Massachusetts accent.
He said the citizens of any other state would have refused to endure the weather, "but this state was born in a period of difficulty and tension," and their commitment to attending the event showed a renewed adherence to the state's founding principals.
"I would not be where I am now, I would not have the responsibilities which I now bear, if it had not been for the people of West Virginia," Kennedy said.
Although the visit is still vividly remembered by those who were present and is spoken of in reverent tones, it almost didn't happen.
Gov. Wally Barron had extended the invitation months before, but the White House initially declined because of a planned trip to Italy. Instead, the president's brother, Robert, who was serving as U.S. attorney general, had agreed to fill in.
Just days before the event, the president's Italy trip was canceled following the unexpected death of Pope John XXIII. His office notified West Virginia officials of the change in plans, sending the state into a frenzy of excitement and preparation.
"The president's kind acceptance of our invitation adds much prestige to our West Virginia, and we are genuinely joyful that he will visit our people on this important occasion," Barron said.
The preparations for the state's birthday had been underway for some time. In February 1955 the Legislature had established the West Virginia Centennial Commission at the urging of Beckley newspaperman Charles Hodel.
Democratic Gov. William Marland appointed the commission's 15 members and charged them with planning and organizing a first-class, yearlong celebration.
The commission, although appointed by Marland, was a civic organization free of government agenda or control. It published a proposed agenda for the event in 1959 that called for "virtually everyone to participate."
The agenda said the celebrations would highlight the "accomplishments and opportunities, traditions and history" of the state while creating "a climate of mutual understanding . . . [among] the varied groups and interests which constitute the State's citizenry . . . [and] achieve a maximum amount of favorable publicity" to "promote the interests of the State."
In keeping with the commission's promise, the celebrations were unlike anything the state had seen before.
On the morning of Kennedy's arrival, thousands of citizens poured into downtown Charleston, paying little mind to the day's inclement weather as they filled sidewalks and spilled into streets that had been closed to traffic.
Many attendees dressed in their finest clothing while others donned outfits reminiscent of pioneer days.
Newspaper photos show men and boys passing the bunting-draped windows of downtown shops dressed in buckskin pants and three-cornered hats. With them were women and girls wearing aprons, gingham dresses and sunbonnets.
One Mercer County pair seen on Capitol Street were dressed from head to toe in 19th century garb and even made the journey to Charleston in an authentic horse-drawn, covered wagon.
Several families spotted at the event weren't even West Virginians. The Becker family of Wichita, Kan., told a Daily Mail reporter they had heard about the president's visit while on vacation.
"As we drove through Grafton the day before yesterday, we saw in the paper that the president was going to be here," said Jim Becker. "So we drove down from Parkersburg last night."