Ken Pitzer and John F. Kennedy

Over Christmas break I got an email out of the blue from Dr. Russell M. Pitzer, the son of Rice’s third president, Kenneth Pitzer, letting me know that he had sent me a couple of boxes of Rice related memorabilia. I was, of course, very happy to hear this. But I also didn’t want to get my hopes up too high. So I simply put it out of my mind until yesterday, when I had a chance to open them.

Much to my delight, the boxes held some real finds. There were quite a few things of interest, including Pitzer’s complete set of the published volumes that came from Rice’s Semi-centennial. But the most interesting by far were several items related to JFK. The first one I found is a photo of Kennedy at the gate of Rice Stadium on the day of his 1962 speech on the nation’s space effort. We don’t have this arresting image in our collection, and in fact I’ve never seen it before anywhere. There’s nothing written on the back so I have no idea who took it–it doesn’t really resemble the pictures that we do have, which were taken by Thresher editor Aubrey Calvin. I believe that Pitzer, with his head turned, is standing at Kennedy’s left. William Houston, then Honorary Chancellor, is at his right with his back to the camera. And Chancellor Carey Croneis is at Houston’s left shoulder facing the camera.

It hadn’t occurred to me that President Pitzer already knew Kennedy, but of course he did. Pitzer had a long and deep relationship with the federal science establishment. He had been director of research of the Atomic Energy Commission (on leave from Berkeley) from 1949 to 1951. He also served for seven years on the General Advisory Committee of the AEC, two of them as it’s chairman. Another picture I found in one of the boxes shows Pitzer at a meeting of that Committee in Washington, D.C., enjoying a visit from President Kennedy. (The date was February 16, 1962–my third birthday, for those keeping track.) In an odd coincidence, in my last post I mentioned that the play being read in the photos was “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” a drama about Oppenheimer’s loss of his AEC security clearance. Pitzer actually testified in that hearing, which must have made the play all the richer to the faculty members reading it, many of whom had been quite close to Pitzer while he was at Rice.

Finally, I found a poignant piece of memorabilia. This is a program from a dinner held on the evening of November 21, 1963 in honor of Congressman Albert Thomas (Rice, class of 1920). The dinner was attended by both President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson. Pitzer has attached to the program the badge that marked him as a member of the reception committee, with this note: “Badge worn to greet Pres. Kennedy on Nov. 21 in Houston, the day before his assassination.”

I’m extremely grateful to the Pitzer family for sending us these things.

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5 Responses to Ken Pitzer and John F. Kennedy

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Ken Pitzer and John F. Kennedy | Rice History Corner --

  2. Paul Burka says:

    Melissa — I was on the Thesher staff in the fall of 1962. The editor was Griffin Smith jr., later of Texas Monthly. Aubrey Calvin is not a name I recognize. I believe that the main Thresher photographer was Jeff Winningham. (Could be Willingham.)

    • Melissa Kean says:

      Hi, Paul! Aubrey Calvin is definitely the person who took the photos in the Woodson’s collection (there are several rolls worth). We have waivers he gave Rice for the use of the images over the years. Our records also indicate that he was associated with the Thresher–but it may be that he worked for the Thresher after 1962. I’ll look into this–I never thought before about the circumstances that brought him to take the pictures. I’m fairly certain that he didn’t take this new photo. It just doesn’t look like the others.

      And you’re right about Geoff Winningham.

      Thanks for commenting. I need the help.

  3. Pingback: JFK at Rice | Rice History Corner

  4. Kyle Wendel says:

    As you probably know, Geoff Winningham was later the Headmaster of Wiess College in the early 80’s.

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