Gerald Tebben, a Coin World columnist for more than 30 years, also contributes to Coin World’s Coin Values and edits the Central States Numismatic Society’s journal, The Centinel. He collects coins that tell stories.
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The 69-day project that took two years
The order to begin work on the new half dollar came Nov. 27 – five days after President Kennedy's assassination. On Dec. 17, Roberts showed a prototype of the coin to the president’s widow, who suggested “mussing” Kennedy’s hair. The first Proof coins (like the example shown) were produced in early January, and circulation-strike coins were produced at Denver Jan. 30.
The Kennedy half dollar was a rush job that was two years in the making.
From the time President John F. Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963, to the Jan. 30, 1964, start of the coin’s production for circulation was just 69 days.
Mint reports and U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts’s recollections tell the story.
In an April 29, 1964, report to Mint Director Eva Adams, Roberts recalled, “Shortly after the tragedy of President Kennedy’s death, Nov. 22, 1963, Miss Eva Adams, the director of the mint, telephoned me here at the Philadelphia Mint and explained that serious consideration was being given to placing President Kennedy’s portrait on a new design U.S. silver coin.”
The order came Nov. 27 – five days after the assassination – to begin work on the new half dollar.
Much of the work had actually been done two years earlier. Roberts modified the Kennedy portrait he had prepared in 1961 for the Mint’s presidential series medal. Frank Gasparro’s presidential-seal reverse was repurposed, too, from the same medal.
Roberts said the president had personally approved the medal’s portrait.
In his report to Adams on April 29, Gasparro wrote, “At 9 a.m. on Dec. 13th we struck our first trial (pattern) pieces.” That same day he flew to Washington to deliver the coins to Adams who, in turn, sent them to Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon and President Johnson.
On Dec. 17, Roberts showed a prototype of the coin to the president’s widow, who suggested “mussing” up Kennedy’s hair.
Dies were completed Jan. 2, and Proof production began almost immediately. Roberts reported that the first circulation-strike coins were produced at Denver Jan. 30. Philadelphia ramped up production the following week. Ceremonial first strikes were made at 11 a.m. EST Feb. 11, simultaneously, at the Philadelphia and Denver mints.
On March 6, 1964, the Mint shipped the first coins to Federal Reserve banks.
The coin proved immensely popular. Banks across the country quickly exhausted their supply. Those lucky enough to get some found a ready market at home and abroad.
Writing in the St. Petersburg Independent in 1967, coin columnist Earl Campbell recalled those days: “Next it was found that people in many foreign countries also wanted the coins as keepsakes,” he wrote. “There were stories of people financing trips to Hong Kong with a few rolls of Kennedy halves. American tourists exchanging the halves, one or two, for a night’s lodging in the best hotels in Europe, and a great underground network that was quietly sending the half dollars into the foreign market to meet the demand.”
Next: When’s a half dollar not a half dollar?