While Norfolk has not hosted sitting presidents in the town’s 154-year history (at least not as far as I know), a few of them visited while campaigning for office.
Among those early visitors were Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Dewey, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, although Reagan was here before he ran for president.
Thousands of people from around the area converged on Norfolk on Oct. 1, 1900, when Roosevelt visited. Roosevelt, governor of New York, was running for vice president of the United States on a Republican ticket with William F. McKinley. They were running against William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska and Adlai Stevenson.
“The streets were swept, elaborate decorations in which portraits of McKinley and Roosevelt were conspicuously shown ... adorned the business houses up and down the street. Not for years has Norfolk been so elaborately and beautifully decorated as today,” according to the Daily News. “The people came by train, by team, by horseback, and where those means of conveyance were not at hand, they even bicycled and foot it in. All wanted to see the hero of San Juan.”
A parade including state and local politicians, marching bands and local “rough rider” groups escorted the governor to a platform on the corner of Main Street (now Norfolk Avenue) and Fourth Street.
After the speech, the governor was “whisked back to the train station where more rough riders pushed through the crowd and were grasped eagerly by the hand of Governor Roosevelt,” the Daily News said.
William Jennings Bryan
The presidential candidate stopped in Norfolk during his 1908 campaign when he ran against William Howard Taft. Bryan talked from the rear platform of his special train car. Bryan, who was from Nebraska, ran for president three times but was never elected. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives and as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson.
William Howard Taft
Taft stopped in Norfolk in 1908 during his campaign for president. He served as president from 1909 to 1913 and as chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1921 to 1930.
Dewey was in Norfolk in 1944 while campaigning for president against incumbent Franklin Roosevelt. Dewey spoke from the balcony of the Waldorf Hotel (now the Kensington). Margaret Voecks of Norfolk and her young son, Larry, were in the audience because she was sure Dewey would win and wanted her 5-year-old son to see the future president. Unfortunately for Voecks and her son, Dewey was defeated.
Dewey was back in Norfolk in April 1948 but was defeated again, this time by incumbent Harry Truman. That was the year the Chicago Daily Tribune — in its banner headline — proclaimed Dewey the winner when in fact Truman had won.
Then-Sen. John F. Kennedy spent 90 minutes in Norfolk on Oct. 5, 1959, when he was campaigning for president. He met with around 200 Democratic Party and Woman’s Club members at Hotel Madison. He said the issues of the 1960 campaign were “the farm problem” and competition with Russia.
U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy visited on April 20, 1968, while campaigning for president. He shook hands with people at the airport, at Union Station at 120 N. Fifth St. and at the Norfolk Livestock Market. Kennedy was killed by an assassin less than two months later.
Ronald Reagan visited Norfolk twice — in 1962 and in 1974. During the first visit, he was billed as a “motion picture and television celebrity” who was the guest speaker at the chamber of commerce’s annual dinner in January at the Norfolk City Auditorium. He received a standing ovation for his speech.
In 1974, he came to town to campaign for Rep. Charles Thone. His stop took him as far as Karl Stefan Memorial Airport where, during his speech, he touched on a number of topics, including the need to cut the size of government, the need to reduce corporate and personal income tax and the importance of a balanced budget.