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Dispatches from History Man: The president took a ride down the
road in 1963, but is a famous line just local lore?
With a stunning bridge above and wooded patches to its sides, the short stretch of State Route 163 through Balboa Park caught the attention of a president, the Frommer’s tour book says.
It’s “the most beautiful highway I’ve ever seen,” President John F. Kennedy supposedly declared upon seeing the road during his 1963 visit.
That’s fine praise from a worldly man who was known for, um, appreciating beauty. The quote adds to the luster of the highway, which still has a vocal band of defenders almost five decades after Kennedy took a ride down it. (Last week, several of our readers took issue with Caltrans over what they call shoddy maintenance of the road’s median.)
But did Kennedy actually say he’d never seen a more beautiful highway? While the comment appears in both modern-day newspapers and tour books, evidence that actually he said it remains elusive.
One thing is clear: Kennedy was here in June 1963, just five months before his death, and he rode down the highway on his way to appear in an open car in a motorcade that drew an estimated 250,000 onlookers.
Kennedy, the sixth president to visit San Diego, was in town to make a speech and accept an honorary degree at a school then known as San Diego State College.
The county, then one of the most Republican in the state, supported Richard Nixon over Kennedy in 1960 by a margin of 56 percent to 43 percent. But president still had plenty of local fans who came out in droves to watch his motorcade travel down El Cajon Boulevard from Hillcrest’s Park Boulevard to what’s now San Diego State University on the eastern edge of town. (Read more about the motorcade below.)
First, though, Kennedy had to get there from Lindbergh Field. He rode on what are now Pacific Highway, Interstate 5 and Route 163 (then known as the Cabrillo Highway).
Hundreds of journalists tracked his every move during his visit, which garnered extensive coverage in The San Diego Union and Evening Tribune. But I couldn’t find the quote about the highway in the local stories.
The local Caltrans office doesn’t know where the quote came from, nor does a librarian who pored over files at the Caltrans library in Sacramento. A check of Google Books (a handy database of thousands of books) didn’t turn up the JFK quote outside of several recent editions of the Frommer’s tourbook; the author of 2011 edition told me the quote came from previous versions and could use some double-checking.
The first reference to the quote I could find is from a 1996 travel story in the Fresno Bee, which called it a “local legend.”
So where did the quote come from? Maybe Jacob Dekema actually said it and it got put in Kennedy’s mouth. A website about roads quotes the head of Caltrans in the San Diego region from 1955-1980 as saying the stretch through the park is “the most beautiful parkway in the United States.”
I called Dekema, who’s 95 years old. He hadn’t heard of the Kennedy quote and couldn’t shed any light on whether it’s real. But he said the roadway is indeed beautiful, the product of landscaping that turned a desert canyon into a lush (for Southern California, at least) stretch of greenery.
I asked him if it’s his favorite highway. Nope, he said, it’s not. That distinction goes to Interstate 805, which happens to be named after him.
If you can help me confirm JFK’s alleged quote about Route 163, drop me a line.
Bonus history tidbits about Kennedy’s trip to San Diego:
• Kennedy’s visit, on June 6, 1963, was a huge sensation. Schools let their students out to watch the president’s motorcade drive by on El Cajon Boulevard — he rode in an open “bubble car” — and thousands of fans and foes mobbed the sidewalks.
Many attendees carried signs and banners. Some were positive — “A-OK with JFK” and “Hello, Mr. President” — while others were waved by protesters. The latter included the messages “Freedom Now” and “No Funds for Segregated Schools” (Congress of Racial Equality), “Ban the Bomb” (San Diego Peace Action), “Save Our Republic, Impeach Earl Warren” (the former California governor was the U.S. Supreme Court’s chief justice at the time) and “Down with Coexistence” (San Diego Patriotic Forum).
Some people passed out unsigned fliers. Why? “The reason is treason, if you must know,” said an Allied Gardens woman. “I don’t want to crawl into slavery.”
What was she trying to say? Your guess is as good as mine.
• Two locals made the news during the visit. A local blind boy named Joey Renzi gave a letter to the president that he’d written on a Braille typewriter, while a woman named Margaret Soderman got past security: “President Kennedy had his cheek patted by a thrilled woman yesterday despite the Secret Serviceman’s attempts to prevent it,” a news report said.
Both Renzi and Soderman died in 2009.
• There was another security incident: “Just before the caravan reached Hoover High School, a girl dashed into the street and ran beside the president’s car to shout: ‘Hello there.’ A second later, a Secret Service man, dashing up from the following car, took her gently by the elbow and led her back to the curb.”
• A local student took the photo accompanying this story that shows JFK’s motorcade in front of the Rudford’s diner (which is still in business today) on El Cajon Boulevard.
This is what the photographer, James Daigh, remembers: “I was attending Horace Mann Jr. High at the time, and three friends and I ‘ditched’ to go see the JFK motorcade. I had my recently acquired 35mm Exakta camera with a 135mm portrait lens along with me.
“Kennedy’s Harvard accent was fodder for mockery then, and two of my friends said they’d get his attention by doing that. They hollered ‘Cuber, Cuber’ loudly and repeatedly (Cuba and the Castro regime being topical), and he looked over, and I snapped the photo.”
• According to The San Diego Union, JFK was the sixth president to visit San Diego while in office. The previous ones were Benjamin Harrison (1891), Woodrow Wilson (in a 1919 visit that drew the president his largest crowd ever and made the history books for another reason), FDR (four times from 1935-1944), Truman in 1948 and Eisenhower in 1960.