Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » How John F. Kennedy Learned About the 1,100 Mormon Missionaries in Germany, 1963

How John F. Kennedy Learned About the 1,100 Mormon Missionaries in Germany, 1963

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 16, 2010

U.S. President John F. Kennedy made a visit to five European nations in June, 1963. His first visit was to Germany where, in Berlin, he made his speech with the famous line “Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum.’ Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’”

Kennedy’s speech in Berlin followed speeches in Cologne, Bonn, and Frankfurt. Everywhere he went, he was greeted by enormous crowds of enthusiastically cheering people. They must have been a blur to him – how could anybody know specifically who was in those crowds?

Well, when his car drove through Cologne, Kennedy did learn of one group, mostly Americans, who welcomed him to Germany. As the motorcade passed near the Deutzer Bridge over the Rhine, with Kennedy and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer standing in their car where they could be seen more easily by the public, Kennedy suddenly craned his neck to read a 40-foot-long banner stretching over the street. A camera caught him as he did so:



That banner was the project of six Mormon missionaries working in Cologne: Elders H. Kent Bowen, Kent M. Samuelson, Philip L. Walker Jr., Steven J. Mayer, Gary H. Fletcher, and Robert I. Day. It was a community project, of sorts: Made of donated materials, it was sewn on an old treadle machine by Sister Durst (I wish I knew her full name), a member of the Cologne branch. The banner was painted by the Berndt Company, and workers from the Adler Company raised it across the street. A chicken restaurant – named, um, the “Chicken Restaurant” – allowed the elders to anchor it to their building on one side of the street (giving them a free dinner when they went in to ask about doing that), and, astoundingly, the city’s traffic department erected a special pole on the other side of the street (a lamp post already stood next to the temporary pole, but city law prohibited the attaching of banners to lamp posts).

I know of no concrete missionary progress that resulted from this effort – how do you measure the infinitesimal steps that go into making someone aware that the Church exists? – but the elders felt that so much good will had been shown to them in making and raising the banner that the Lord had a hand in it.

And certainly, as this picture demonstrates, the banner was seen by the man it was intended to honor.

(Caution to potential commenters who may be unfamiliar with Keepa: Comments must be on topic. This space is not offered for general political remarks.)



  1. Well, gosh, he certainly did see it! No question about that. What a great effort by those missionaries and members, and as you say, Ardis, it’s impossible to quantify exactly the impact that had on the local citizens as well as the designated recipient of the greeting. Fascinating post, as ever.

    Comment by Alison — July 16, 2010 @ 7:29 am

  2. Is that the same H. Kent Bowen who is now an emeritus member of the Harvard Business School faculty? (I finally found a biographical sketch that said he received his undergraduate from the University of Utah–which makes me think he might be the same one.) Maybe a Boston-area ‘ninnie who knows him can point this post out to him and find out.

    And I also wondered if he’s related to Gordon Bowen, the advertising man who, if I remember correctly, designed many of the Church’s advertising campaigns, including the “Homefront” series. If so, it appears that PR runs in the family blood.

    Finally, not a political comment, but it’s really too bad that someone on his staff didn’t advise Pres. Kennedy that his famous line should have been “Ich bin Berliner.” Unfortunately, the insertion of that indefinite article “ein” changed him from a citizen of that divided city into a jelly doughnut.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 16, 2010 @ 8:15 am

  3. You know what I love most about this story? It’s not necessarily any happy feelings President Kennedy might have felt at being honored by fellow Americans (although that’s a wonderful part). It’s that these (likely) American missionaries worked so hard and felt so determined to honor this president. What a wonderful example of a proud citizenry evidently disregarding partisanship. It makes me feel very proud of these Elders.

    (I hope that wasn’t too political . . .)

    Comment by David Y. — July 16, 2010 @ 8:41 am

  4. I was delighted to run across this picture — it was completely new to me.

    (Mark and David, your remarks are just fine. You should see some of what lands in the spam filter, though, whenever the name of anyone in politics is mentioned. They come from people who have never commented before, long essays about what’s wrong with Mormon involvement in politics, or why Kennedy is the fourth member of the godhead, or why Mormon Democrats should be executed before being excommunicated, or whatever. *That* we can do without, no?)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 16, 2010 @ 8:50 am

  5. I work with some Bowen’s; I’ll be passing this along.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 16, 2010 @ 9:07 am

  6. Just came across this blog today and I am glad I did!
    This photograph is so interesting!
    It makes me wonder what was going through the President’s mind at the time.

    Comment by Crystal — July 16, 2010 @ 9:32 am

  7. Cool, as always.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 16, 2010 @ 10:53 am

  8. Ardis, thanks for passing this along. Very cool.

    Comment by Paul — July 16, 2010 @ 11:28 am

  9. Fascinating! I find that photograph quite heartwarming. Brought a little tear to my eye! I read this blog every time you post but rarely comment. You do great work!

    Comment by NorahS — July 16, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

  10. I wonder if JFK remembered that scene a few months later (September 26, I think) when he met with the First Presidency in SLC and spoke in the Tabernacle.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 16, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

  11. I just got a note from my friends and it just so happens that I met H. Kent Bowen recently. He is the emeritus Harvard professor and he is currently serving as the President of the Washington, Tacoma, Mission.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 16, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

  12. How wonderful is that?! Thanks, J. Well, we know he was an idea-man from his early manhood, don’t we?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 16, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

  13. Ardis, where was this picture published, the Church News or the Deseret News? I was only eleven at the time, but I recall seeing this picture somewhere before.

    Now I’ve done it, and revealed my actual age. Did I say eleven months or years?

    Comment by kevinf — July 16, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

  14. Yes, kevinf.

    (Yes, it was the Church News; yes, the Church News is part of the Deseret News; and yes, you’ve revealed your actual age. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 16, 2010 @ 5:15 pm

  15. This is a very cool picture. And yes, Ardis, we can read the banner. I know you were worried. The picture would not be nearly as interesting without President Kennedy obviously turning his head to read the banner.

    Comment by Maurine — July 16, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

  16. I love creative missionary PR efforts. This must surely be a highlight.

    Comment by Clark — July 19, 2010 @ 9:42 am

  17. Kent Bowen was our Bishop in Cambridge in the early 80’s. He was a wonderful man with a good sense of humor.

    Comment by Greg — July 19, 2010 @ 10:56 am

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI