HEBER SPRINGS — Greers Ferry Dam and its decades-long impact on Arkansas’ economy stand as a testament to achievements possible when political leaders work through their differences, former President Bill Clinton said Thursday at a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s dedication of the mammoth facility.
More than 5,000 people attended the ceremony at the dam, which was conceived and built over several years spanning the 1950s and early 1960s. Clinton said the project could not have succeeded without cooperation among state leaders, members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation at the time and presidential administrations with which they sometimes had vast differences.
“They were trying to figure out how to make things work. They never, with all the fights they had going on, would have let the government shut down or let the country default on its debt and hurt us in the face of the rest of the world,” the former president said, an obvious reference to the current government shutdown over funding the federal health care overhaul and a political battle looming later this month on raising the federal debt limit.
During his 20-minute speech, Clinton recalled meeting Kennedy in 1963 as a teenager while in Washington for Boys Nation. The brief encounter occurred about 10 weeks before Kennedy traveled to Arkansas to dedicate the dam. The dedication ceremony on Oct. 3, 1963, was one of the last major public appearances by Kennedy before his assassination less than two months later in Dallas.
Standing on the same platform were Kennedy stood 50 years ago, and using the same lectern, Clinton discussed Kennedy’s belief that the dam would bring tourism and economic development to the region. He also discussed the legacy of the slain president.
“John Kennedy died one month and 19 days after his left this podium,” Clinton told the crowd. “He could not have known that he just had that long to live. He gave an enormous amount of thought to what he wanted to do when he was my age and even older, but it was not to be because his life was claimed too soon.”
Clinton said that “in death (Kennedy) became for all the rest of us … the symbol of the eternal future, the symbol of what we always have to become and that America was always going to be, a country on the move, always becoming, always redefining itself.”
Clinton also noted U.S. Rep. Wilbur Mills’ important role in helping to make sure there was funding for the dam, and the respect Kennedy had for the Arkansas congressman.
About 2,900 of those who attended event were students from across the region, but some in attendance Thursday also attended the first dedication ceremony 50 years ago.
One of those was 98-year-old Carl Garner, who was chief engineer on the Greers Ferry Dam project. He also was chief engineer for Bull Shoals and Table Rock dam during his 58 years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Garner, who attended Thursday’s event with his wife, Jean, said he remembers riding with Kennedy after the dedication back to a waiting helicopter.
“We were riding to the helicopter and the World Series was going on and (Kennedy) said, ‘turn the radio on and see what the World Series score is,’” Garner said, adding that before they got to the helicopter Kennedy had the car stopped so he could shake hands with Arkansas National Guard officers who were standing on the side of the road.
Heber Springs Mayor Jackie McPherson described Garner as “the father of of Greers Ferry Lake.”
Maggie Douglas, whose grandmother was first cousin of Bud Greer, who owned and operated the ferry and the man the dam was named after, said she was teaching in the Hoxie School District in 1963 and decided to drive to Heber Springs hoping to get a glimpse of Kennedy.
She said she got within about 15 feet of the president.
“He was very much at ease,” she said. “I thought he had a very majestic air about him, that he knew what he was doing, knew what he was talking about.”
Jerry Choate, who also attended Thursday’s ceremony, said she was in high school 50 years ago and got to see Kennedy at the Little Rock fairgrounds after he arrived by helicopter from the dam dedication.
Choate said “hundreds and hundreds of people” were standing behind a fence hoping to see Kennedy when he got out of the helicopter and she climbed a seven-foot-tall chain link fence to get a better view.
“I climbed the chain link fence and put my arms over the top of it and, lo and behold, he was walking through the crowd,” Choate said. “He was right below, shaking hands and smiling … and I was screaming, ‘President Kennedy, President Kennedy.’”
The president stopped right in front of her, “and he looked at me and just remember how suddenly his auburn hair was just glistening, and his smile and his eyes,” she said, adding that Kennedy reached up and grabbed her hands and said, “hello.’”
“It still gives me goose bumps and that moment has forever been special,” Choate said.
Mills’ granddaughter, Becky Yates, also came to Thursday’s ceremony from her home in New Jersey.
The Greers Ferry Dam was constructed on the Little Red River between 1959 and 1962.
The dam’s primary function is flood control, but the facility also serves as a hydroelectric power plant. Greers Ferry Lake, created as a result of the dam, is a popular recreational destination and a major contributor to Arkansas’ tourism industry.
Greers Ferry Dam measures 1,704 feet in length and stands 243 feet above the stream bed of the Little Red River. It cost $46.5 million and created a reservoir of between 30,000 and 40,000 acres, depending on water level, and more than 340 miles of shoreline in Cleburne and Van Buren counties, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.