CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — The next time you drive to Charleston, remember that Interstate 79 would not be there if not for John F. Kennedy.
The interstate highway system devised under President Eisenhower did not include any roads for West Virginia. Once in office, JFK, who was grateful to the Mountain State for putting him in office, sent down orders that we were to have an interstate highway.
In 1960, Kennedy’s fortunes turned on the unlikely battleground of West Virginia. He was a Catholic running for president and there were many who didn’t think he was electable because of his religion. New York Gov. Al Smith, a Catholic, failed in his bid for president a generation before.
But JFK was everything Smith wasn’t. He was rich and handsome and charming and charismatic. But he was also Catholic.
Kennedy had to show that if he could win in a predominantly Protestant state, the religion issue would be put to rest.
West Virginia Wesleyan professor Robert Rupp, who is writing a book on the 1960 primary put it this way: “West Virginia was good for Kennedy, and Kennedy was good to West Virginia. He said, ‘If I can win the primary, I will win the general election and I will help West Virginia.’”