By Dennis Myers
On its website, the city government of Henderson has posted this text:
“Nearly half a century ago during a visit to Southern Nevada, President John F. Kennedy predicted that the then fledgling City of Henderson was a ‘city of destiny.’ Little could he have known just how accurate a prediction he was making.”
Little does Henderson know that Kennedy said no such thing.
The identical language, also with “city of destiny” inside quotation marks, appears on the website VisitHenderson.com and at the bottom of city government news releases.
On Jan. 31, Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen said in a speech, “Since our inception … we’ve worked hard to live up to that vision seen by President Kennedy, and this year we celebrate 60 years of milestones and successes.” A Las Vegas Review Journal report on Hafen’s speech read, “Hafen noted that President John F. Kennedy once visited Henderson and called it ‘a city of destiny’.”
But JFK never said it. And he never visited Henderson, not as president, anyway.
How do I know? A friend of mine, historian Guy Louis Rocha, read the R/J report. He knew of Kennedy’s history of visits to Nevada and didn’t remember one in Henderson. He called me and I recalled no Henderson visit, either. He contacted a friend of his who is intimately familiar with Henderson’s history and asked for information on this alleged visit to Henderson. Rocha’s friend said he had an October 1963 Henderson newspaper report on the Kennedy visit that contained the quote. But Kennedy did not visit Nevada in October.
At that point I had an idea of what had happened. I knew Kennedy had visited Las Vegas at the end of September 1963 and the Henderson Home News at that point was probably a weekly or biweekly, which could have meant that the Home News report of the September visit had been delayed until the first week of October.
First I decided to do some basic homework. I double checked Kennedy’s September 28, 1963 visit. It did not take him to Henderson.
Then I checked the text of Kennedy’s Las Vegas speech that day. I wanted a transcript, if one existed, not the prepared advance text. There was always the possibility JFK could have departed from the advance text and ad-libbed something about Henderson, and fortunately, the Kennedy crew was noted for rapidly producing transcripts after his speeches. In the Kennedy Library I found a typewritten transcript of Kennedy’s Las Vegas speech that was labeled “AS ACTUALLY DELIVERED.” It does not contain the word “Henderson.”
Then I went and checked the newspaper reports on Kennedy’s visit, figuring he might have said something in an interview or news conference about Henderson. I found nothing like that in the Las Vegas papers.
But in the Henderson Home News of October 1, 1963, I hit pay dirt.
I should mention that in 1963, the Home News still followed the practice of acting as a community booster, shaping its news stories to help economic development. Those kinds of newspapers were unofficial arms of local chambers of commerce.
On the front page of that edition of the Home News was this headline: “Kennedy Sees Henderson&Boulder As Cities of Destiny.” The spacing is in the original. Note that the phrase is applied not just to Henderson but also to Boulder City.
The headline appeared over a “news” story by Morry Zenoff, a familiar figure in Nevada journalism history. The story he wrote did not support its headline. The only place where the phrase appears is in a sentence that attempts to put the notion into JFK’s mouth – “it [Kennedy’s speech] made all of us realize along with the president that Henderson and Boulder are certain cities of destiny.” Nowhere did Zenoff put the phrase inside quotation marks attributed to Kennedy himself. The phrase quoted by the City of Henderson as Kennedy prose is actually Zenoff prose.
Shortly before Kennedy’s September appearance at the Las Vegas convention center, the Home News had carried a full page ad paid for by Henderson businesspeople expressing anxiety over the city’s economic future: “Go forth, young man …we can’t use you here. Is this the word to our young people – able and beloved – when they’ve finished school and are ready to start making their own living? Too often it is, in the smaller communities like ours.”
Obviously, Henderson was unduly worried. Today it is the state’s second largest city. With or without the Zenoff quote, it was going places.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.