Grass had yet to grow over the grave of John F. Kennedy when Gloria Hays and 55 fellow Youth Tour delegates from across Missouri were part of a ceremony in which a wreath was placed to honor the fallen president.
Hays, now Gloria Knipp, was one of 11 Youth Tour delegates sponsored by Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in the inaugural class for the trip that has transformed the lives of thousands of kids across the country for more than 50 years. Â
"The assassination was still so very fresh in our memories and important to us," said Knipp, a Tipton resident, as she looked back on her time in Washington, D.C., as a high school senior-to-be.
Kennedy had been assassinated less than six months before, and Knipp has a scrapbook that contains pictures of the wreath at the foot of the president's grave. As Co-Mo continues the celebration of its 75th anniversary, cooperative officials look at the trip as one of the most important things it has done over the years.
"When you hear from the Youth Tour alumni, whether they went recently or 50 years ago, they all tend to say the same thing, that it was the trip of a lifetime," said Ken Johnson, the cooperative's CEO and general manager. "We're happy to be a part of that and to help make it happen for them." Â
Co-Mo is making that trip happen this week for three more area youth. Katherine Loganbill (Tipton High School), Josie Wright (Prairie Home HighSchool) and Courtney Templemire (Pilot Grove High School) left for Washington, D.C., on Saturday, June 14, as part of the 51st delegation for the Missouri Youth Tour.
The seeds of Youth Tour were planted in Chicago by the man who would eventually succeed Kennedy after his untimely death. In 1957, Lyndon Johnson, then a senator from Texas, spoke to a gathering of electric cooperative leaders at a national convention in the Windy City and challenged them to start sending young people to the nation's capital.
"If one thing goes out of this meeting, it will be sending youngsters to the national capital where they can actually see what the flag stands for and represents," Johnson said.Â
His home state of Texas took up Johnson's challenge that very summer, sending a small group of young people to work in his office. Later that same year, another busload arrived carrying youth from Illinois. The idea grew, and other states began sending young people throughout each summer. By 1959, this new thing called Youth Tour had grown to 130 students.
But it wasn't until 1964 that the cooperative's national organization, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, began to coordinate joint activities among the state delegations. Missouri jumped on board that year and sent an initial delegation of 11 students, one from each of the schools the cooperative served at the time.
Knipp was selected based on an essay competition.
"My father was one of those who went house to house back in 1939 and was a firm believer in electric cooperatives, so when it came time to write the essay, I learned from him," she said.
Over the years, some things have changed about the trip; students arrive in the nation's capital by airplane these days, not bus. But many things remain the same; the monuments, the museums, the camaraderie among the delegates.
"I made some really good friends - lifelong friends - especially of those from the Co-Mo area," Knipp said. "We've kept up with each other throughout the years."
For the past 23 years, the Missouri delegation has been led by Mike Marsch, member services director for the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives.
"Even now, all these years into this, you've got it in the back of your mind that, wow, we're entrusted with these kids in a major city where bad things can happen," Marsch said. "It's an awesome responsibility."
But it's a responsibility Marsch thrives at handling. Assisting in that ability is a backpack that has been labeled the "Nuclear Football." Its importance to Youth Tour is similar to its namesake that holds the nuclear launch codes and is somewhere near the President of the United States at all times. Marsch's Nuclear Football contains medical and emergency-contact information from every Youth Tour delegate and chaperone under his wing, first-aid supplies, tickets, confirmation numbers and cash.
"It covers all those "what-if' situations," Marsch said.
In recent years, the Football has been getting blessedly lighter, as more and more information is kept on an iPad instead of a bulky notebook. But the Football is still the one thing, besides a delegate (which, Marsch emphasizes, has never happened), that he wouldn't want to lose during the trip.
With his more than two decades of Youth Tour experience, Marsch has seen what the trip can do for delegates.
"A lot of things have changed," Marsch said. "The words the kids use, the clothes they wear, the music they listen to. Society changes, but what doesn't is that I get calls and letters and emails from every generation along the way with former delegates who tell me "This was a life-changing trip for me.'"
A Deeper Commitment Â
Nearly 30 years after Gloria Knipp's life-changing experience, her son Matthew won a spot on the 1992 trip.
"I was thrilled," she said. "When you come from a family like ours who worked hard to get the lights going, you have it beat into you how important electric cooperatives are, so you have an advantage when you enter the contest," she said.
The strong memories of delegates like Knipp and others from throughout the trip's history is why Co-Mo is getting more deeply involved. At the finals event to select its delegates for the 2014 trip, Co-Mo officials and board members listened as former delegates talked about how the trip changed their life.
"The stories were amazing," Johnson, Co-Mo's CEO, said. "The trip has had such an impact on them."
In the wake of that experience, the Board agreed to add a fourth Co-Mo-sponsored position to the trip each year, starting in 2015.
"When you hear what this trip does for people, how even 25 years later they remember it as something that made a huge difference in their lives, you want to do more, to change more lives, and thankfully we can," said John Agliata, the cooperative's Youth Tour Coordinator who begins each year's contest by visiting area high schools to tell high school juniors about the trip.
"This cooperative has a commitment to its community, and to the youth of the communities we serve," Agliata said. "Youth Tour is a shining example of that commitment."