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Medford man who drove for JFK recalls time together

Honkers and mallards were plentiful for hunters Michael Watkins and his father, Wally, that cold Nov. 22, 1963, morning in the Klamath Basin.

"We still had the decoys set out but we wanted to go back into Bonanza to get some lunch and warm up," said Michael, who was then 18 and a student-athlete playing football at what is now Southern Oregon University in Ashland.

"The guy in the little country store there said, 'Did you hear that President Kennedy has just been shot? "We think he is dead,' " Michael recalled.

"A dark cloud came right over us. It took the fire right out of us," he added.

"I cried," Wally said softly. "I had never expected him to be killed."

Three years earlier, Wally had spent nearly two days driving JFK around the Rogue Valley. The then Democratic presidential candidate was visiting as the grand marshal in the April 23, 1960, Pear Blossom Parade.

"He was very friendly, a very decent man," recalled Wally, now 89. "The time I spent with him was very pleasant. He was more interested in other people than talking about himself."

Wally was a Medford businessman who owned a 1959 Lincoln convertible. Rep. Bob Boyer, who landed JFK as the grand marshal for the parade, asked Wally to drive the senator from Massachusetts in his convertible.

But the fellow Democrat was caught squarely on the horns of a dilemma: He had promised Michael he would take him fishing, a family tradition on the opening day of trout season since Michael was 4.

Wally decided to drive Kennedy. His son, now 68, opted for fishing.

"I was 16 and I wasn't interested in politics," Michael said.

Had he to do it over again, he figures he would have gone with the parade. "I wish I had met him," he said.

Kennedy, then 42, who had announced his candidacy on Jan. 2, was just three years older than Wally. The Medford resident picked up JFK along with Pierre Salinger at the Medford airport.

"Senator Kennedy didn't talk a lot about himself," Wally recalled. "He wanted to know about the people and the valley. That kind of turned me on."

When Wally told the candidate that he had missed the opening day of trout season, JFK kidded him they could always stop at a fish store, Wally said, smiling at the memory.

He drove the presidential candidate to Ashland, where he spoke to a group of students. He recalled they were inspired by the candidate with his youthful looks and quick wit.

"He answered all their questions," he said. "He didn't hesitate."

Wally later joined JFK and Salinger for dinner at the Medford Hotel.

"He had me sit next to him," Wally said. "They visited with me a lot. They asked things like where Mike had gone fishing. They didn't talk a lot about politics."

However, Wally, who hails from pioneer Oregon stock, told him his father became a Democrat during the Great Depression.

"Senator Kennedy seemed so interested in life around here," Wally said. "He was interested in the pears. It seemed to me he knew something about Harry and David. He intertwined with people."

After the parade, he drove JFK around Medford, including past the Watkins' family home in Medford.

Later, Kennedy sent Wally a letter noting he felt bad the Oregonian had missed opening fishing day. The letter, which the family still has, also invited him to his inaugural.

"I didn't go — I wish I had," Wally said.

When JFK's younger brother Robert F. Kennedy came to Medford on May 27, 1968, Wally made a point of visiting with him. Like his older brother, RFK was running for president.

Wally met him at the Medford City Hall, where RFK was accompanied by professional football player Rosie Grier. Wally talked to RFK for several minutes, telling him about his early visit with JFK.

Robert Kennedy, 42, would win the Oregon primary, giving him momentum going into the California primary. He was fatally shot on June 5, 1968, in Los Angeles.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

From left, Wally Watkins stands by his wife, Brenda, and his son, Michael as he reflects on his time spent with John F. Kennedy. Mail Tribune illustration / Julia Moore - Julia Moore