MAUREEN BURNS: Presidential Encounters of the First Kind

By Maureen Burns • Last Updated 9:42 pm on Friday, February 24, 2012

Maureen Burns

Last week I wrote about personal encounters with U.S. Presidents. I received so many responses that I am writing them in a three part series. This is part two.

Marcy Lage, a former Greenville resident who lives in Arizona, was a college student working at a hotel in Des Moines. John Kennedy stayed there. When he left the hotel, the staff stood around in the lobby. He came over to her, shook her hand and said, “You did a very good job.” Marcy says, “He was so darn good looking, sun bleached hair and very tan. He was casual and friendly. I have never seen a photo of him that was able to portray how handsome he was. My whole life, I have pretty much told everyone I have ever met, ‘I shook hands with Kennedy!’”

Charlie Stephens was stationed at the Naval Air Facility across from the Naval Academy where Kennedy gave a commencement address. When Kennedy’s helicopter landed, it was Charlie that was out on the landing site directing him where to go. No matter who the president, I know there are always a lot of people who want to tell him where to go!

On Friday, October 14, 1960, Ann Pries, Mary Tithof and my brother-in-law, Bill Burns went to see John Kennedy when he was campaigning in Grand Rapids. After his speech, Mary chased his convertible all the way down Division Street to shake his hand. She said it might not have been a real shake. It might have been only a touch, but it was very memorable just the same. Bill pushed through and got his autograph. Sadly, he lost it later, but the memory remains.

Fred Burns, our cousin, was a sophomore at Catholic Central High School and not particularly enamored with politics or Kennedy. He was, however, on his way home from school as the motorcade went by. Fred was very shy, but stepped to the curb to watch with the crowd. Kennedy was sitting on the back of a convertible with secret service lining both sides of the car to keep people back. Without planning to, Fred jumped off the curb, went between the guards and right up to JFK to shake his hand. Kennedy was a bit surprised but shook hands with him. It only took five seconds and the guards let Fred go.

Later, Fred remembers he cried when he heard Kennedy had been assassinated. He realized this experience had a much bigger effect on his life than he realized. Though very shy, this chance encounter gave him confidence to tackle other things that he had been afraid to do. He believes his brief brush with JFK triggered a change in his confidence level that lasted his entire life and affected all his future decisions.

With Gerald Ford having been our congressman for many years, plus a Grand Rapids all around guy, many people had memories of him. Roseanne Brouwer remembers being at the old Civic Auditorium when Ford was speaking. He came into the foyer where they were and her mom giggled and waved to him as he went by. Roseanne said she almost died of embarrassment at her mother. Some things never change, right, fellow mothers?

Don and Diane Wozniak were in Krakow, Poland, in 1975, with GVSU. Betty Ford was outside and they went up to her. She looked at them with a vacant, dull, distant look. She appeared buzzed. They chalked it up to the rigors of traveling. Shortly thereafter, she admitted herself to a rehab program, which became the Betty Ford Clinic. As Betty was so honest about these things, we decided it was okay to include that.
Terri Handlin met her when Betty spoke in Grand Rapids in 2000. She said, “She was such a friendly, engaging woman and won their hearts!”

Bill and Harriette Cook also visited with Gerry and Betty Ford in Vail at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Bill told them he knew John Heintzleman, Bill’s Greenville high school football coach, who played ball with Ford. Betty and Harriette discussed a mammogram Harriette had just had at the Betty Ford Clinic. “It was all surreal.”

Rae Dewberry’s dad was Doc Sorensen, a local dentist. He always said his claim to fame was that he had tackled a young high school football player who later became President. Of course, that was Jerry Ford.

I will close with a campaign slogan by Pat Paulsen, who ran for president many times without success. “We’ve upped our standards. Up yours.” Perhaps he should have won just because of his sense of humor! Tune in next week for the third and last part to this series.

Maureen Burns, a Greenville resident, is a professional speaker and author. Her e-mail address is

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