JFK and the Crowley Rice Festival of 1959

 

Since its inaugural year of 1937, the International Rice Festival in Crowley has drawn thousands of visitors to the Acadia Parish town that annually celebrates one of Louisiana’s staple crops. Few, if any, festival goers have generated as much publicity as then-Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts who arrived with his wife Jacqueline in October 1959 to sample rice-based Cajun cuisine, crown the festival queen and, not so coincidentally, to generate support for his 1960 presidential race.

Edmund Reggie, a stalwart Democrat in Crowley who would serve as city judge for 25 years, invited the glamorous, young Kennedys knowing the Irish Catholic politician from New England would receive a warm welcome in the heavily Catholic parishes of southwest Louisiana. Mrs. Kennedy briefly addressed the enthusiastic crowd in French, though with a slightly different accent than that common to the audience. She studied abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1949 during her junior year as a student at Vassar College.

Judith Ann Henneberger Haydel was crowned the 1959 Rice Festival Queen by the man who would be elected America’s 35th president the following year. In 2012, Haydel’s daughter, Julie Henneberger Patton, wrote about her mother’s excitement for the website of Garden & Gun magazine:

“Throughout my childhood, these photos were displayed in our home and never failed to catch the eye of visitors. My mother was young in these photos and thrilled to have just won the beauty contest, but the importance of the day was not lost on her. Though then-Senator Kennedy wasn’t a southern statesman, the fanfare was grand, especially for Mrs. Kennedy who wooed the crowed. Pageants in that day were certainly far less of a production. I know my maw-maw made mother’s gowns, the makeup was minimal, and my paw-paw forbade my mother from swimsuit contests.”

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