The Story of the Kennedy Half Dollar
Few moments in the 20th Century have been examined and probed in greater detail than the events that occurred in Dallas, Texas, on the morning of November 22, 1963. When three shots were fired in rapid succession from an open sixth floor window above Dealey Plaza, the course of our Nation’s history was irrevocably changed. The youthful and eloquent President of the United States, the standard bearer of a new and passionate generation, was dead.
In the terrible sadness of the days and weeks that followed the sudden, tragic death of President John F. Kennedy officials at the United States Mint received numerous letters and telegrams suggesting a "coin of the United States be struck in honor of our late President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy."1
At the time, changing the designs on our circulating coinage was not nearly as common as it is today. A new reverse design featuring the Lincoln Memorial was released for the one-cent coin in 1959, but to this day the obverse portrait of President Abraham Lincoln looks much the same as it did in 1909, when the coin was first released. George Washington was placed on the quarter-dollar in 1932 and Thomas Jefferson has claimed the nickel as his home since 1938. For a quarter century, between 1938 and 1963, these three notable American Presidents formed the foundation of our nation's circulating coinage.
The pace of coin redesign for the first half of the 20th Century followed this pattern of one or two changes every 10-15 years, slowly replacing allegorical renditions of Liberty with portraits in tribute to actual Americans, leaders whose service to the emerging Nation had earned them such high honor. In 1948, one of the most beloved founding fathers joined the ranks of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln with the introduction of the 50-cent coin bearing the likeness of Benjamin Franklin on the obverse and the Liberty Bell on the reverse. Although the pioneering colonial printer was himself a great statesman and a remarkable inventor, his age prevented him from ever being chosen for the presidency. In addition to their immeasurable service to the Nation, each of these great Americans had been deceased for more than forty years before their images were added to our coinage.
The first exception to this informal tradition followed the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April, 1945. As the United States' only four-term President, a lasting tribute to the man who guided his country through both the Great Depression and the Second World War seemed completely just and proper. Roosevelt's portrait appeared on the dime less than one year later, in 1946, setting a precedent for honoring fallen leaders, regardless of how much time had passed since their death, a precedent which would be followed in late December, 1963.
President Lyndon Johnson quickly acknowledged the importance of honoring the life of his predecessor with a new United States coin. According to records held by the Historian's Office at the United States Mint, a White House Press Release from Press Secretary Pierre Salinger and dated December 10, 1963, conveyed a statement from President Lyndon Johnson to the Congress of the United States proposing the "coinage of 50-cent pieces with the likeness of the late John Fitzgerald Kennedy."2 In the same Press Release, the new President also makes mention of the fact that "[W]ith the adoption of this proposal each of the five denominations now being produced by the Mint, i.e., one-cent through fifty-cent pieces, would have the likeness of a President on the obverse of the coin."3
President Johnson also acknowledged the need for the Congress of the United States to approve the production of these new half-dollar coins, "...in view of the provisions of section 3510 of the Revised Statutes, as amended (31 U.S.C. 276), which provides that no change shall be made oftener than once in twenty-five years."4 At the time of President Kennedy's death, the Benjamin Franklin design had been in circulation just 15 years. This Act, dated September 26, 1890, also empowered the Director of the Mint "with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, to engage [sic], to engage...the services of one or more artists" for the purpose of making such changes to the Nation's coinage.
With President Johnson's proposed legislation in hand, the House of Representatives took up the matter exactly one week later, on December 17, 1963. Issues of concern raised on the floor that day included a lengthy discussion of the President's proposed use of the 50-cent denomination for the new coin to honor John F. Kennedy as well as the timing of the new coin's release.
One of the major expenses incurred during the coining process is die production. Since new dies are required at the beginning of every year, and to avoid the cost of having two different half-dollar coins dated 1964 in circulation, President Johnson urged swift passage of his bill. The Congressional Record from that day's session contains the following comments from Congressman John William Wright Patman, of Texas; "Therefore, the expense...would be a great deal higher if the mint did not do this at the beginning of the year. Furthermore, to change dies twice would reduce the production capacity of the mints."5 If done quickly, Congressman Patman suggested "the total cost of converting the 50-cent piece will be less than $1,000."6
As far as the proposed denomination, President Johnson's memo to Congress clearly stipulated the use of the 50-cent coin as the Nation's tribute to its fallen leader. As a result, the President stated, all regular issue coins struck by the United States Mint would then carry the image of a President. Although no other denomination was suggested in the President's proposed legislation, the ensuing Congressional debates did mention other possibilities as a tribute to President Kennedy, including the notion of reviving regular production of the discontinued silver dollar.
At the time, silver dollar coins were not being produced and many of those already in circulation were being saved by collectors. According to Congressman Patman, "A Kennedy silver dollar...would aggravate the shortage of silver dollars because of their appeal to collectors or to individuals wanting to have a new coin as a memento of the late President."7
The final vote count in the House of Representatives was overwhelmingly in favor of producing the new Kennedy half-dollar; 352-6. In spite of such a one-sided result, there was some interesting dissent voiced on the floor and reported in the Congressional Record. For example, Representative William Goodling of Pennsylvania, whose constituency included the town of Gettysburg, was, at the time of President Kennedy's assassination, supporting legislation to issue a fifty-cent coin commemorating the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in 1863.
Congressman Goodling also reminded his colleagues of a statement made by Representative Morton of Maryland; "To arbitrarily change the name of important American landmarks...to change the mint of one of our coins and make of it in this coming election year a campaign button - seems to me shabby treatment of the memory of a man who gave completely and finally of himself in his devotion to duty."8
With little opposition, the legislation passed through Congress becoming Public Law 88-256, approved and signed into law by President Johnson on December 30, 1963. Simultaneous striking ceremonies were held in Philadelphia and Denver on February 11, 1964, beginning the production of what Mint Director Eva Adams stated would be "90 million of the new half-dollars in 1964,"9 roughly the equivalent of 1963's production of Benjamin Franklin half-dollar coins. Public demand for the new coin was unprecedented and the actual total mintages were much higher, with nearly 430 million coins carrying a 1964 date. It should be noted, though, that more than half of these were actually struck in 1965 and 1966.10
In the two months between the signing of the law and the striking of the first coins, Mint Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts and his protégé, Frank Gasparro, were charged not only with the creation of the new half-dollar's design, but they were specifically asked by Mint Director Eva Adams to record their personal recollections of the entire process. Those documents were forwarded to Miss Adams from the Acting Superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint in a letter dated April 30, 1964.11
These documents reveal, in much greater detail, the rapid sequence of events which followed almost immediately after the burial of President Kennedy at Arlington
National Cemetery on November 25, 1963. Gilroy Roberts was contacted twice by Director Eva Adams between the time of the President's death and November 27, 1963, when he was informed that a new half-dollar would be needed.12 In his narrative, Roberts also relates that he was told the new coin would feature the portrait used for the Mint list medal of President Kennedy on the obverse and a depiction of the Presidential Seal on the reverse. "Mr. Gasparro tackled the reverse and the obverse became my problem," he stated.13
This information predates the proposed legislation communicated in the official White House Press Release by nearly two weeks. Roberts' account also reveals the production of trial strikes as early as December 13, 1963 - a full four days before the matter was debated on the floor of the House of Representatives. Clearly, the Mint was working on a very compact timeline and was doing everything possible to be prepared to introduce the new coin into the 1964 production schedule.
The last days of 1963 required the Chief Engraver to accompany Mint Director Adams and Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon as the trial strikes were examined by Mrs. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in Washington on December 17, 1963. Roberts' recollection of this meeting also reveals that both Mrs. Kennedy as well as the Attorney General had in mind a design showing a full figure or half figure of the late President for the coin's obverse. Lacking the time necessary to prepare new designs and models, Roberts "strongly advocated the simplicity and directness of a profile portrait as being the best possible arrangement for a handsome, outstanding coin whose beauty would endure and there could be no doubt as to the identity of the subject."14
For his part, Mint engraver Frank Gasparro also detailed his personal remembrances of these historic moments in a written narrative sent to Mint Director Adams in April of 1964. Interestingly, one of Gasparro's concerns at this time was the intricacy inherent in the details of the official Presidential Seal. The design elements, such as the number and position of arrows, olives and leaves, the placement of the shield and the number of vertical stripes within the shield must be exactly correct because Gasparro knew that "Errors on coins are keenly sought by coin enthusiasts."15
Gasparro also notes the only modification made in adapting the Presidential Seal for the reverse design of the new Kennedy half-dollar; "The E Pluribus Unum was greatly enlarged in comparison to the official Presidential Seal so that it could be easily read by the naked eye."16
It is also in Gasparro's narrative that a specific time is associated with the historic first strike, occurring "at 11:00 A.M., on February 11, 1964, amidst great excitement at the Philadelphia Mint and the Denver Mint simultaneously."17 Director Adams was in Philadelphia and signaled Denver when to strike the first coin via telephone.
Since its debut, the Kennedy half-dollar has been a favorite among collectors. Since its debut in 1964, more than 4.1 billion have been struck by the artisans of the United States Mint. The only significant change to the original design came as a result of our Nation's Bicentennial celebration in 1976 when an image of Philadelphia's Independence Hall temporarily replaced the Seal of the President on the coin's reverse, and a dual date (1776-1976) was placed under the portrait of President Kennedy on the obverse. Each of these coins are a tangible piece of American history, igniting the memories of a frozen moment for millions of people and, with each new year of mintage, carrying the promise of that moment into the future. The legacy of President John F. Kennedy lives in this coin, and the history of this coin lives at the United States Mint.
1. Letter from Mint Director Eva Adams to unknown recipient, undated
5. Congressional Record, House of Representatives, December 17, 1963, page 23643
8. Congressional Record, House of Representatives, December 17, 1963, page 23644
11. Letter to Mint Director Eva Adams from Acting Superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint, recollections of Gilroy Roberts and Frank Gasparro forwarded to Mint Headquarters, dated April 30, 1964