The day JFK came to Arkansas: Personal reflections on a historic day

by Jan Spann

Two months shy of my 16th birthday, my parents allowed me to miss school and attend the dedication of the Greers Ferry Dam and Lake in 1963. I don’t remember what I wore or what the weather was like, but I vividly remember shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy, the keynote speaker at the dedication.

501 LIFE contributor Jan Spann captured this image (above) of President John F. Kennedy with her camera during the dedication of the Greers Ferry Dam.

Along with state dignitaries like Gov. Faubus and Arkansas congressmen, I attended one of the last public events for JFK. Seven weeks later he would be assassinated in Dallas. Attending the October 2013 commemoration at the JFK Park overlooking the magnificent expanse of concrete, it’s hard for me to imagine what this area looked like before the dam was built.


Harol Dene Lacy remembers the area before the dam was built because he was born and raised in Ida, north of the dam. “The older people said it couldn’t be done, building something that big that would cover so much land with water,” he said. The government bought out farmers, and the towns of Higden and Greers Ferry were relocated to higher ground.

“There wasn’t much work up in these parts, so I worked jobs at the saw mill and then drove a gravel truck, working for my brother who owned two trucks,” Lacy said. “Folks in the county were trying to get the National Guard built up, and three or four of my buddies kept talking about it. I didn’t want to go, but on Easter Sunday in 1958, I joined and went to Fort Chaffee for basic training, then finished up at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.”

Lacy was assigned to equipment operations, then switched to field maintenance. Each platoon would set up and support a company, with Guard camp a summer requirement. His platoon was chosen the best in Arkansas in those early years.

When the work began on the dam, Lacy got a job on the third shift pouring and placing concrete. Then his unit was called up for duty for the 1961 Berlin crisis.

“In ’62, I had training at Fort Bragg, N.C.,” he said. By the time he returned, most of the work was completed. In 1963, he was offered a temporary job on the power plant construction. “I was always told to take any job offered with the Corps (of Engineers). After assignments in Ozark and Little Rock, where I met my wife Maxine, I was offered a permanent job at Heber in the fall of ‘66, and it didn’t take us long to say, ‘Yes!’”

Maxine and Lacy were married in March 1969 after dating three years, and she took a job at Cleburne County Bank, and he was a tester trainee at the power plant. He served in a variety of capacities until retiring as the senior mechanic in 1998. The couple’s son, Brad, has been CEO of the Conway Development Corporation for the past 14 years, taking leadership of the Conway Chamber of Commerce as well when the two merged seven years ago.

Lacy also remembers that politics were more civil at the time of the dam’s dedication. “Our congressional leaders had earned great respect in Washington, even when they were at odds with the President or Gov. Faubus back home,” Lacy said. “JFK had remarked that if Wilbur (Mills) suggested that he come down here and sing ‘Down By the Old Mill Stream,’ that JFK would be pleased to start humming.”


Jerry Ware Choate was a senior at Hall High School when she asked her mom if she and a friend could skip school to see JFK at the state fairgrounds, where the President’s helicopter landed.

“Mom let me drop her at work so Beverly and I could drive to the fairgrounds and try to see the President,” she said. “With hundreds of people there, we knew we couldn’t get close enough, so we decided to climb a chain link fence to get a better look at this handsome man!

“As he walked from the helicopter, we called to him, ‘Mr. President, Mr. President!’ He looked up at us atop this fence, and he walked over and reached his hands up to us,” she said. “I still get goose bumps thinking of that day. His auburn hair glistened, his eyes sparkled and his smile was so sincere.”

Jerry and her husband, Steve, moved to Heber Springs in 1972. She worked at Aromatique for two decades as an occupational health nurse. Steve served as a juvenile court judge in the 16th District, and he now sits on the Cleburne County Quorum Court. Braving intensely cold temperatures, Jerry attended President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, and both were invited guests for the Greers Ferry Dam commemoration.

Dr. Dianne Tiner Logan lived in McCrory when her parents took her and her brother out of school.

“They wanted us to see our President, and I bragged about that forever,” she said. Like most of us old enough to remember the events of JFK’s presidency, Jerry Choate, Dianne Tiner Logan and I remember exactly where we were when the assassin’s bullets brought an end to this young President’s life.

I didn’t remember President Kennedy’s words that day in Arkansas until YouTube allowed me to step back to that time. Kennedy noted that the Corps of Engineers’ project was 30 years in the making as part of FDR’s New Deal.

“The full impact will be made in the sense of recreation and industry in the coming years,” said JFK.

He noted that in 10 years, i
f he should return to Greers Ferry Dam, he would see the improvements generated through tourism dollars and through electrical power generated by the dam, all improving the state’s economy. “This is a fine example of people working hard and working together. As Arkansas becomes more prosperous, so does the United States.”

Recalling that historic event, I realize how fortunate I was to have attended that dedication ceremony and to have shaken hands with a sitting President. In the past 50 years, our family and thousands of others have enjoyed the pristine beauty of Greers Ferry Lake, fed by the Little Red River. The Corps still maintains strict guidelines on boat docks and other buildings on the lake’s main areas, which have preserved the natural beauty of the bluffs and forests surrounding the lake.

President Kennedy remarked that this lake, with its 340 miles of shoreline and 40,500 acres, was a natural treasure where future generations of Americans could see the majesty found in the back hills of a small rural state. What started as part of the White River Basin Flood Control Plan has burgeoned into a thriving business and tourism locale. And for the hamlets long submerged — Shiloh, Millers’ Bottoms and so many more — they are remembered in the recreation areas and roads that echo the names and remind us how lucky we are for those who helped build this place that’s such a special part of life in the 501.