In the early 1960s, Akron resident Sonya Heckman was among the legions of young people who counted themselves among John F. Kennedy’s supporters.
She admired the youthful leader with the bold ideas and beautiful family. She voted for him in her first election and was inspired by his inaugural-speech challenge to “ask what you can do for your country.”
“He was new. He was refreshing. … He made it sound like he was going to do things, and we could do things, too,” she said.
So when word came that she would be among a group of airline-industry representatives who would greet the president at the dedication of Washington’s Dulles Airport on Nov. 17, 1962, she was thrilled.
Heckman, who grew up in Akron, was Sonya Shaw then. She was 22, living in the Washington area and selling Mutual of Omaha travel insurance at what was then Washington National Airport, now Reagan National.
Her boss told her to report to Dulles the next day, a command that puzzled her. The airport wasn’t even open yet.
She asked why.
“He said to me, ‘You’re going to meet President John Kennedy,’ ” she recalled. “Well, I was stunned, and I just stared at him.”
She’s not even sure why she was chosen, except she was one of her boss’s top salespeople.
He told her she’d be in a receiving line, and she was to wear white gloves. The rest of the day, she couldn’t keep her mind on her work.
As she drove home, thoughts raced through her mind. Was her uniform pressed properly? Were her shoes in good condition? Would she even be able to find her white gloves?
She managed to pull her outfit together, but she had more trouble getting her mind around her assignment. As she drove to the airport the next day, “I was thinking, is this really happening?” she said.
Heckman stood in a line with pilots and flight attendants and waited nervously as the president made his way down the line, shaking hands. He passed through quickly, saying little as he went.
She wasn’t sure if she was supposed to talk to him, but she took a chance. When Kennedy approached her, she offered her gloved hand and said she was honored to meet him.
The president paused and began to chat. She can’t remember the exchange. She just remembers that the handsome president looked her in the eye and spoke to her in “a wonderful voice.”
“He spent more time with me in the line than anybody else,” she said.
Heckman returned to National Airport to finish her shift and then drove back to her apartment and turned on the TV news. Suddenly, to her surprise, a picture of her with the president appeared onscreen, his hand in hers, his mouth open as he spoke.
She was shocked. Video recorders were still in the future, so she couldn’t capture the moment. She didn’t even have time to run to the phone to tell someone else it was on.
The photo would later appear in her company’s newsletter, another reminder of her brief moment with her hero.
But only a year and five days after her encounter, Kennedy was dead.
On the day of the assassination, she was working four days in a row at the airport. People crowded around TV sets to watch the coverage, and Heckman would race to where the televisions were every time she could get away from her post.
“You’ve just never seen so many people crying,” she said. She found herself breaking down a few times, too, but her boss told her, “Sonya, you’re just going to have to get a hold of yourself.”
She remained in the Washington area for more than three decades before returning to Akron. Now, she said, her meeting with the president seems like a dream.
But a photo she keeps on display proves otherwise.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org.