The Kennedy Years (1956-1964): Structure and Accomplishments



If 1950-1956 are considered the years of modest development progress, then 1956-1964 should be considered the years of major development progress; major progress not only in terms of construction projects but in terms of overall park accomplishments. By 1964 the Whitman Mission National Historic Site supported a more complex administrative structure, vigorous historical research, and active community relations. Never before had such diverse accomplishments occurred during one administration. The following examines the reasons for these changes and the people responsible for them.


Administrative Structure

In response to new projects and the increased workload, the staff increased from one permanent employee in 1956 to five in 1964: the superintendent historian, administrative assistant, maintenance man, and caretaker. In addition, two laborers, three rangers, and two clerks worked part time. Like Superintendent Weldon, Superintendent Kennedy was a jack-of-all-trades and required the same of his staff. Historian Erwin Thompson remembers that his responsibilities varied:

We did everything. During the week . . . [caretaker] Merlin Warner took care of the outdoors--cutting grass, picking up trash, whatever. On Saturday and Sunday I had to do it . . . .

Joe Kennedy . . . insisted I learn everything--budget, interpretation, and just everything that was going on at the park. He insisted that his staff know what was going on . . . . [67]

In spite of the shared duties, there was a clearer distinction of work responsibility among the administrative, maintenance, and historical divisions by 1964. Caretaker Merlin Warner was "pressed into emergency guide duty" [68] during the previous administration, but such occasions were less frequent and less necessary at the end of Kennedy's term due to the enlarged staff. In addition, responsibilities that were previously the superintendent's were delegated to the staff, freeing Kennedy to focus on the major development projects finally coming to fruition after 20 years.

Important structural changes occurred at the regional level, as well. On July 1, 1956, "Whitman National Monument was decoordinated from the supervision of the Superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park [reporting instead] directly to the Regional Director of Region Four." [69] The Regional Director was Lawrence C. Merriam until 1964 when Edward A. Hummel took the job.

Partial credit for the monument's successful administrative transition and development project belongs to Joe Kennedy. Kennedy entered the National Park Service at Grand Canyon National Park in 1939. After 10 years he moved to Iowa where he was Effigy Mounds National Monument's first superintendent before transferring to Bryce Canyon. Kennedy remained at Bryce Canyon until he began his superintendent assignment at the Whitman National Monument, January 6, 1956. After 8-1/2 years he was transferred to Lava Beds National Monument in 1964. Kennedy currently resides in California.

The superintendent's role changed drastically from 1956-1964 due to the new demands of Mission 66. Unlike his predecessor Bob Weldon, who was akin to a historian and groundskeeper, Kennedy's focus was public relations. Given Kennedy's interest in the community--he was First Aid Chairman of Walla Walla County Red Cross, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis, just to name a few--promoting the Whitman National Monument was a natural extension of this involvement. However, his lectures were not about the Whitman story but rather the National Park Service in Walla Walla. Unlike Superintendent Weldon who gave slide presentations on national parks, Kennedy lectured that increased visitation to Whitman Mission sparked Walla Walla's economy. He also promoted Mission 66 and reassured frustrated Walla Wallans that development was truly underway. At a time when every new change at the park was closely scrutinized, Kennedy's involvement with local people and representation of the National Park Service generated support for the park and its programs. Kennedy remembers promoting the National Park Service: "I didn't particularly care for missionaries, but I wanted the National Park Service to be thought of with respect and with a measure of affection. I hope I succeeded." [70]

Indeed, a major reason for the park's successful development from 1956-1964 was Superintendent Joe Kennedy.


Principal Accomplishments: 1956-1964

In contrast to all previous years, 1956-1964 was a time of almost frantic development. Stimulated in 1958 by the passing of Public Law 85-388 authorizing 50 additional acres for the Whitman National Monument, long-delayed construction projects began in earnest. The following list highlights 8 years of major accomplishments:

1958: Public Law 85-388 passes, Congress authorizing fifty additional acres for the Whitman National Monument.
1960: Frazier farm (46.71 acres) purchased.
Search for Blacksmith Shop and Alice Clarissa's grave.
1961-1962: 5.6 acres for access road right-of-way donated by Walla Walla County.
1962-1963: Old county road closed; Oregon Trail restored.
January 1, 1963: Name changed from Whitman National Monument to Whitman Mission National Historic Site.
1963: Residence, visitor center, and utility building constructed.
June 6, 1964: New Facilities dedicated.

Twenty years to plan, eight years to complete: the Whitman Mission National Historic Site of June 1964 looked almost entirely different from the Whitman National Monument of two decades earlier. An important impetus to this change occurred on just one day when the park nearly doubled in size from 45 acres to 98.15. This sizeable accomplishment deserves attention as do those people responsible for its occurrence.


Last updated: March 1, 2015

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