On a crisp August morning, several hundred visitors met at the Oahe Dam to remember a ceremony held 50 years earlier. They gathered at the same location as many had back then to commemorate one of the dam’s unauthorized purposes: serving as a pivot point.
The event was an opportunity to remember a day in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy came to the dam, near Pierre, S.D. to dedicate what was, at the time, the largest rolled earth dam in the world.
Just as it was in 1962, the scene was set with dam’s intake structures and the water of Lake Oahe in the background. The event celebrated the people who built the dam and the communities it has served during that time.
Jamie Damon, who as a 9 year old girl, sent a letter for a fourth grade writing assignment to the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, to thank her for sharing her home with America on television and to invite her husband to "come visit the dam my daddy is building." Damon’s letter is cited by locals as the reason the president came to dedicate the dam.
Damon spoke at the ceremony sharing the details leading up to and surrounding the day she met the president including a visit to her parents’ home from the secret service and her mother’s scramble to make sure she and her sister had suitable dresses to wear to the ceremony and meet the president.
Part of Kennedy's speech during the original dedication was, "We take for granted these miracles of engineering, and too often we see no connection between this dam (Oahe) right out here and our nation's security, and our leadership all around the world. The facts of the matter are that this dam, and many more like it, are as essential to the expansion and growth of this American economy as any measure that Congress is now considering, and this dam and others like it are as essential to our national strength and security as any military alliance or missile complex… These dams, these great projects, frequently are statistics to those of us who work in the nation's capital. I can imagine nothing more beneficial to any American, to any member of house or senate, executive branch, to any citizen than to come here to South Dakota and realize here in this state and in this county, there is being built the largest dam of its kind in this world and it's a source of pleasure to me to come here on this occasion."
On August 17, 2012, the ceremony was at the dam but it was, to the people in attendance, more than the statistics and more than the concrete. It was about the moment in time and the shared experiences they had, which centered on the dam.
“Those who worked on the project did more than build a dam or powerhouse,” said Pierre Mayor Laurie Gill. “They helped build two communities.”
Roger Olson, at age 15 attended the dedication in 1962. He attended the anniversary event in hopes of connecting with others who were there or who had photographed or filmed the event because he was able to sneak under a rope to shake hands with the president. He succeeded in shaking President Kennedy’s hand but because he had separated from his family, there were no photos of the day he met the President.
Another woman, Bonnie Gorham, attended the ceremony 50 years prior with her 8 month old daughter. She was at the ceremony with her daughter, now 50 years and 8 months old, carrying the event program from the ceremony in 1962.
Two gentlemen who had worked together to help construct the dam shared their experiences from working on the dam. One moved from Wyoming to work on the construction and later went to work at the dam itself. Another went to work at the dam after graduating from the local high school and they went on to open a service station.
To each person it was a shared experience, a shared moment, a shared purpose centered on the dam. They each talked about their Sunday drives with their families out to the project after church to check on how construction was progressing.
Their stories didn't focus on cubic yards of earthen fill, the power plant or power-generating capacity. They each had a special story about a single event: the day President Kennedy came to Oahe Dam. The moment in time is a fixed moment, one that if it hadn't happened would have a wheel that connects the spokes of so many people's lives, missing a hub - an unauthorized purpose of the dam.
Former South Dakota U.S. Senator George McGovern was there 50-years ago and had planned to attend. But illness prevented him from attending the ceremony. Senator McGovern died Oct. 21, 2012