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Richard M. Nixon’s Visit to Bell County


Kentucky History and Genealogy Network, Inc.

President Nixon and Tricia Nixon
June 12,1971
Courtesy of Library of Congress


Nixon at the Gates of History 

 Author; Thomas D. Matjasic


 Thomas D. Matjasic Shares His Manuscript With Our Readers

  On July 3, 1959, Vice President Richard M. Nixon came to Middlesboro, Kentucky in order to deliver a few appropriate remarks at the formal dedication ceremony for Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Nixon’s participation in the event was part of a long-term strategy to present himself as the logical heir to President Dwight Eisenhower. The themes expressed in his address to the Middlesboro audience were, in fact, meant for a larger audience, both at home and abroad.

     The movement to establish a national park that encompassed the Cumberland Gap was initiated by local boosters as early as the 1920’s. In 1923, Republican Congressman John M. Robsion, Sr. introduced two bills to provide for the creation of the park. Both died in committee. Eventually a bill introduced by Congressman John Flannagan of Virginia passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on June 11, 1940. [i]

      The enabling legislation provided that Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia purchase specific areas of land for the park. On September 14, 1955, the federal government formally accepted 20,184 acres of land from the afore mentioned states and the park became a reality  A committee of the Middlesboro Chamber of Commerce began planning for a dedication ceremony within a year. In a planning document entitled, “Year of Dedication 1959,” R. Dean Hall revealed the motive for holding a dedication ceremony.

      As stated above, the dedication of the park is actually nothing more than a public acknowledgement of the establishment of the park. It is in a sense, a publicity program.  As with any publicity program, the larger you can make it, the more successful it will be. A simple park dedication would provide us with tremendous publicity. Especially if we could secure the President of the United States to make the dedication. [ii]

      Hall and others on the committee hoped to create a series of programs throughout the target year in order to promote the development of a tourism industry in the area. “Besides the obvious benefits of year long publicity, we should be able to create enough traffic throughout the year to make every merchant in the area have a record year of business.” [iii]

      The implementation of the plans for the dedication continued for several years with Harry Hoe, a board member on the Chamber of Commerce, acting as Chairman of the Dedication Committee. Kentucky Senators John Sherman Cooper and Thruston Morton arranged for a local delegation to meet with President Eisenhower on February 26, 1959 in order, “to extend the official invitation.” [iv]

      According to Chairman Harry Hoe, President Eisenhower responded to the invitation by stating: “Yes, I’ll come. My forefathers came through the Cumberland Gap on the way to Kansas.” However, Hoe noted that Eisenhower reneged on his commitment due to the death of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. According to Hoe, Eisenhower, “canceled all engagements bar none in tribute to him.”[v] The committee then turned to Nixon to represent the President.

      On May 26, 1959, U.S. Senator John Sherman Cooper (R-KY), U.S. Senator Thruston Morton (R-KY), and Congressmen Eugene Siler (R 8th KY), Carroll Reece (R 1st TN), Howard H. Baker (R 2nd TN), and Richard H. Poff (R-6th VA) sent a formal request to Nixon inviting him to deliver the “principal dedication speech” scheduled for July 4, 1959. The signers noted that they felt Nixon’s visit would, “greatly encourage our leaders in this predominantly Republican area.” [vi] Two handwritten notations appear on the letter. The first states, “accept for July 3.” The second reports “RN will be in Los Angeles.”

     The notions on the letter help to explain why Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton was given the honor of giving the main address on July 4 during the dedication ceremony. They also explain why Nixon spent such a short period of time in southeastern Kentucky during this visit. The Vice President was scheduled to give the main address at the opening ceremonies of the Sports Arena in Exposition Park in Los Angeles on the Fourth of July. [vii]

      Given Nixon’s tight schedule, it was surprising that he could make time to appear at all. Even though the Cumberland Gap dedication was a nonpartisan event, political considerations were paramount for Nixon in 1959. Though Nixon was clearly the front runner to be the 1960 Republican presidential candidate, his nomination was hardly secure. The strongest potential challenger appeared to be New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Following the poor showing Republican candidates made in the mid-term elections of 1958, Harold Stassen, “emerged from a meeting with Eisenhower and announced that Nixon was responsible for the debacle and should be replaced by Rockefeller as the 1960 presidential front runner.” [viii] Former Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey “and others” believed that Rockefeller, “could be nominated and elected.” [ix] Rockefeller had far more money than Nixon and an extraordinary amount of personal charisma. Nixon benefited from his “experience,” and crisscrossed the country during the 1958 mid-term elections, desperately campaigning for Republican candidates. Though his efforts were often futile, he banked, “all the goodwill he could with party regulars…” [x]

      The May 26 invitation was difficult to ignore. Kentucky Senators John Sherman Cooper and Thruston Morton were political allies from a swing state. Kentucky was a traditionally Democratic state but Republicans made steady gains after the 1952 election and President Eisenhower carried Kentucky in the 1956 Presidential Election. Nixon hoped to do the same. Senator Thruston Morton served as the chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1959 through 1961 and was a key figure in the 1960 campaign.

      Of far greater concern were Congressmen Eugene Siler and B. Carroll Reece. Both men were considered members of the “old guard” conservative faction associated with Robert Taft. Siler was known to be “averse to entangling alliances and foreign quagmires.” [xi] He strongly supported prayer in public schools and wanted to ban spirituous liquor advertisements from the air waves. Reece openly “advocated isolationism” before the Second World War and voted conservative economic principles.” [xii] Nixon was an “internationalist,” but needed the support of conservatives like Siler and Reece in order to secure the Republican nomination.

      Kentucky is one of the few states that holds its gubernatorial election the year before a presidential election. The 1959 Kentucky gubernatorial race pitted Republican Congressman John M. Robsion, Jr. (R-KY), 3rd) against Democrat Bert T. Combs. Both candidates were expected to attend the dedication ceremonies. Robsion was a protege of Senator Morton. Though a resident of Louisville, Robsion was born in nearby Barbourville, Kentucky. His father had long represented southeastern Kentucky in the halls of Congress. No one expected Robsion to win, but Kentucky Republicans did not want to be embarrassed by a Combs landslide. Anything Nixon could do to help the Robsion candidacy would be long remembered by Kentucky Republicans.

      Two large issues dominated the national landscape in 1959. The first was civil rights for African Americans. The second was the changing nature of the Cold War. Nixon was an outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s. He strongly supported the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and cultivated a relationship with Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Nixon regarded civil rights as a moral issue. According to biographer Conrad Black: “Nixon did not try to finesse it with the southern whites, or sugar the pill. Segregation was immoral and unlawful and it had to end.” [xiii]

      The issue of desegregation was still potentially explosive in the South. In 1956, ninety-nine Southern members of Congress signed a resolution condemning the “Brown v. the Board of Education” decision. This “Southern Manifesto,” charged that, “outside agitators are threatening immediate and revolutionary changes in our public school systems. If done, this is certain to destroy the system of public education in some of the states.” [xiv]

      The dedication of a new national park had nothing to do with the issue of civil rights. However, all the U.S. Senators, House Representatives, and governors of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia were invited to attend the celebration. No members of the Kentucky Congressional delegation signed the manifesto. However, the Tennessee Congressional delegation was divided. Four Tennessee Congressmen signed the manifesto. U.S. Senators Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore, Sr. “were the only members of the Senate from the South who categorically refused to sign,” the manifesto. [xv] Republican Congressmen B. Carroll Reece and Howard H. Baker also refused to sign.

      In contrast to Kentucky and Tennessee, the entire Virginia Congressional delegation had endorsed the Southern Manifesto. Senators Harry Byrd Sr. and A. Willis Robertson were both strong defenders of segregation and Congressman Richard H. Poff was one of the only two Republicans to sign the manifesto.  Years later, Harry Hoe recalled how important it was to get Senator Byrd to participate in the event:

     Then we got the U.S. Senators, all six of them at one place at one time…speak together on the same project. And Harry Byrd of Virginia, he was the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee in the Senate. He was the big league. We had to have his support. Without him, it would be tough. [xvi]

      The other major issue of concern to Nixon involved our relationship with the Soviet Union. Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, a power struggle within the Soviet Communist Party occurred. By the late 1950’s, Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the new party leader. While maintaining their dominance of their eastern European satellites, the new Soviet leaders hoped to pursue a policy of “peaceful coexistence” with the West. Khrushchev “made warm references to the United States” at the Twenty-First Party Congress in January of 1959. Khrushchev hoped to enhance his prestige by being the first Soviet leader to visit the United States. [xvii]

      The thaw in the frosty relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union provided Nixon with an opportunity to demonstrate his statesmanship. On January 6, 1959, Anastas Mikoyan, the Deputy Premier of the Soviet Union met with Vice President Nixon in Washington, D.C. to discuss U.S.-Soviet relations. In their meeting, Nixon tried to find “areas of agreement” between the people of both nations. He noted that the American people, “preferred to use the resources of this country to win battles against disease, poverty and want, rather than any other battles between nations.” However, the Vice President also told his Soviet guest that the American people were concerned when they read statements which indicated a determination by the Soviet Union through Communist organizations, to increase their influence and to overthrow governments around the world, including our own.” [xviii]

      The two men discussed issues related to propaganda, the Hungarian Uprising, and Berlin. Near the end of their conversation, Mikoyan urged Nixon to “find the time to visit” the Soviet Union. Nixon responded that he did want to visit the Soviet Union “someday”. He expressed his enjoyment of Russian literature and told the Deputy Premier that he “would find many Armenians in San Francisco.” He reported to Mikoyan that: “Californians said that Armenians were the toughest people to deal with; that they drove the hardest bargains.” Mikoyan, a native of Armenia, responded “that was probably true of the American Armenians.” [xix]

      Shortly after his meeting with Mikoyan, President Eisenhower decided to send Nixon to represent the United States at the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow in July 1959. Nixon reported in his memoirs that he, “undertook the most intense preparation I had ever made for a trip or meeting.” By the time Nixon departed for Moscow on July 22, 1959, he “was prepared to discuss any of the more than a hundred topics or problems of Soviet-American relations that Khrushchev was likely to bring up.” [xx]

       On July 1, 1959, just two days before he visited Middlesboro, Nixon met with Frol Kozlov, the first Vice-Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers and a member of the Presidium. Kozlov was in the United States to discuss issues related to trade but Nixon wanted to expand the conversation to broader areas of “peaceful co-existence and competition.” The exchange was often heated with Nixon asserting that the Soviet Union, “placed great emphasis on extending its influence and domination to other areas of the world, such as Asia, Africa, and Latin America.” Kozlov was quick to respond that, if the people themselves do not want communism no one could impose it upon them.” [xxi] Nixon and Kozlov also discussed features of Nixon’s scheduled visit to the U.S.S.R.

       Nixon’s intense preparation for his upcoming trip to the Soviet Union helps to explain the minimal preparations he made for the speech he delivered at the dedication of the park. Colgate S. Prentice did most of the research for the speech. In an undated memorandum to Nixon, Prentice provided the Vice President with a broad outline for his address. In addition to remarks about the park itself and “Mission 66,” Prentice wrote:

The value of thinking back on the kind of lives led by men like Daniel Boone, George Rogers Clark and John Gabriel Jones. It never hurts to recall the toughness of these men and ask ourselves whether we are preparing ourselves adequately to meet the challenges confronting us. Perhaps a reference to Mikoyan and Kozlov. Are we prepared to match their toughness, dedication and tenacity. [xxii]

       Later, in the same memorandum, Prentice suggested to Nixon that he develop the theme of overcoming “barriers between nations, races and peoples. It is these we must surmount to preserve world peace.” [xxiii] The outline also developed the theme of future frontiers in terms of scientific, technological and economic development.

     It is equally clear from the handwritten notes that Nixon jotted down as he prepared for his Kentucky journey that his recent discussions with Kozlov were on his mind. He indicated under “Spirit of Kozlov” that the Russian was one of nine children “five died of lack of food,” another “2 killed in W.W. 2,” and that two were left. [xxiv]

       Nixon’s schedule indicates that he was to depart from Bolling Airforce Base in a twin-engine Convair at 10:00 am on Friday, July 3 for the hour-long flight to Middlesboro. A memo dated June 25, 1959 indicates that Nixon offered a ride to Senators Morton, Cooper, Robertson, Byrd, Kefauver, and Gore, as well as Representatives Baker, Reece and W. Pat Jennings of Virginia. Of the nine invited, only Senators Morton, Cooper and Robertson accepted the invitation. [xxv] He was scheduled to depart Middlesboro at 1:50 pm for Baltimore, where he was to transfer to a commercial airline for a flight to Los Angeles.

       Upon landing at the Middlesboro Airport, Nixon was “greeted by a crowd about equally composed of newsmen and politicians.” He commented on the beauty of the country but was soon confronted with political questions. According to journalist Lee Winfrey, Nixon, “boosted the Stock of Several Republican stalwarts.”[xxvi]

       Nixon was quick to promote the gubernatorial candidacy of Kentucky Republican John Robsion. “I know John and I have a very high regard for him.” He warned that the state’s “Democrats shouldn’t underestimate him,” because Kentucky was a swing state. He asserted that Robsion could win the election, “if Republicans get together and get a big vote from independents they have an excellent chance to win.” Nixon also praised Governor Cecil Underwood of West Virginia as, “one of the brightest young men in Republican politics.” [xxvii]

       Nixon departed the airport in a white convertible driven by Middlesboro policeman Ernest Mike. Nixon was accompanied on his ride to the top of the Pinnacle by Henry Hoe. Hoe later recalled, “we drove down through Cumberland Avenue and all the people were clapping and cheering and the flags were out.” [xxviii]

       Park Historian Roy Stubbs discussed the importance of the Cumberland Gap to pioneers migrating westward between 1775 and 1796. Nixon made the unlikely assertion that his own ancestors may have come through the gap. He reported that his maternal ancestors were from Indiana and his father was from Ohio. Both families “trace back to Pennsylvania.” [xxix] Both must have been geographically challenged if they passed through the Cumberland Gap on their way to the Old Northwest.

     After signing the park’s visitor registry, Nixon remarked, “I hope hundreds of thousands of Americans come here, especially young people who would be inspired by the history.” [xxx] His words must have been music to the ears of Harry Hoe and other members of the Chamber of Commerce who dreamed that Middlesboro would become a tourist mecca.

       Following his brief visit to the park, Nixon was taken to a platform erected in front of the Cumberland Hotel in downtown Middlesboro. The Vice President and the other dignitaries “sat for 65 minutes in 90-degree heat while a 77-unit parade passed in review.” [xxxi] Between 25,000 and 35,000 people lined the streets of Middlesboro for the July 3 festivities which included a parade of “20 bands, 30 scenic historic floats, 70 trained show horses, ponies, and their riders along with,” Miss Kentucky, National Tobacco Queen Judy Ann Austin of South Carolina, and Miss Majorette of America Claudette Riley. The Middlesboro High School band played “California, Here I Come,” as a special tribute to Nixon. [xxxii]

      Once the parade ended, Nixon delivered his brief address. He told the crowd that he and his wife had traveled a great deal, but “when you get back” to the United States, “you realize how fortunate we are in America.” He urged his listeners never to take their country for granted. In an attempt at political humor, he observed that in Kentucky “everybody wants to be governor.” Striking a bipartisan note he concluded that this meant, “that we must have a lot of good men in the Republican Party and in the Democratic Party as well.” [xxxiii]

      The Middlesboro newspaper tended to ignore his comments related to the Soviet Union. The national press did not. The Washington Star, The New York Times, and the Louisville Courier-Journal all featured his statements related to Deputy Soviet Premier Kozlo.   Nixon told his audience that “America is a more revolutionary country,” than Russia, “because we believe it is possible to have a good life with freedom,” while the Soviets, “believe only in the good life without freedom.” He referred to Kozlov as “an intelligent man with a keen sense of humor who in this country might have been a very effective political contestant.” While noting the economic and military strength of the U.S.S.R., he went on to say that what really impressed him about Kozlov, “was not that he could point to his strength, but that he has faith and belief that his cause is right and will prevail.” [xxxiv]

      Nixon warned his audience: “When we become satisfied with what we have, that is the time the United States will go down the road to defeat.” [xxxv] However, the Vice President also asserted that Americans knew Kozlov was wrong, “because we have seen a better way here. But what we need most here is not military strength or economic strength, although we have these, but a faith and belief to go with them.” [xxxvi]

      At the conclusion of his speech, Nixon received two gifts from Dr. Robert Kincaid of Lincoln Memorial University. He shook hands and posed for photographs as he made his way from the reviewing stand to his car. Before reaching the car, he climbed aboard the float of the Tennessee School for the Blind and shook hands with the members of the school band. [xxxvii] Following this brief diversion, he made his way to his car and a short while later departed by plane.

      Nixon’s 1959 visit to Middlesboro was long remembered by the local population. Returning from the event, Paula Donaldson wrote in her diary:  “Today, Middlesboro had a big parade to help celebrate the dedication of the Cumberland Gap Park. Vice Pres. Nixon, Miss KY, Claudette Riley, and Whitesburg band was here.”  [xxxviii] Fifty years after the event, former Boy Scout Albert Earle would recall, “standing at attention and saluting Nixon as the Vice President passed within just two feet of him before the parade.” [xxxi]

      Nixon achieved his goals. Just three weeks after his Middlesboro speech, Nixon flew to the Soviet Union and engaged Chairman Khrushchev in the heated, “Kitchen Debate,” at the American Exhibition. His spirited defense of American capitalism, “was not televised, but it was widely reported-with a dramatic photograph,” of Nixon poking his finger, “in Khrushchev chest for emphasis.” [xl] An earlier exchange took place in a model television studio and was taped. “In American eyes, Nixon had won the debate, which had caused his poll members to rise significantly…The Kitchen Debate probably sealed Nixon’s nomination.” [xli] In December, 1959, Governor Rockefeller announced that he would not seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1960.

      Nixon lost his 1960 presidential race to Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy by a mere 118,574 votes. However, he carried the states of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. His appearance at the Cumberland Gap Dedication undoubtedly helped to rally the Republican faithful in those states to his cause.


 i.      http://www. n

ii.     “Year of Dedication 1959,” Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Resource Management Records Collection, Series 3, Box 2, Folder 1.

iii.     Ibid.

iv.     W.C. Broadwater to Mr. Elbert Cox, February 16, 1959, Series 3, subseries 1, Box 2, Folder 5, R. M.R. Collection.

v.      Henry Hoe, oral interview, conducted by Martha Wiley, February 2, 2009. “50th anniversary of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park Oral History Project.” Cumberland Gap National Park Historical Park Archives.

vi.     John Sherman Cooper, Thruston B. Morton, Eugene Siler, B. Carroll Reece, Howard H. Baker, and Richard H. Poff to Richard M. Nixon, May 26, 1959, Pre-Presidential: Series 207, Box 110, Folder 5: Cumberland Gap (KY) Nat’l Park, Nixon Presidential Library & Museum, Yorba Linda, CA.

vii.     “Nixon Arrives to Dedicate Sports Arena,” Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1959.

viii.    Conrad Black, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, (New York: Public Affairs, 2007), p. 374.

ix.      W.J. Rorabaugh, The Real Making of The President: Kennedy, Nixon and the 1960 Election, (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2009), p. 97.

x.        Black, Richard M. Nixon, p. 370.

xi.       “The Christian Conservative Who Opposed the Vietnam War,” George Mason University’s History News Network,

xii.      Michael Rogers, “Brazilla Carroll Reece,” Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture,

xiii.     Black, Richard M. Nixon, p. 353

xiv.     Congressional Record, 84th Congress Second Session. Vol. 102, part 4. Washington, D.C.:Governmental Printing Office 1956. 4459-4460.

xv.      Theodore Brown Jr. and Robert B. Allen, “Remembering Estes Kefauver,”            

xvi.     Harry Hoe, oral interview, February 2, 2009.

xvii.    David MacKenzie and Michael Curran, A History of the Soviet Union, 2nd edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1991) p. 373.

xviii.   Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Volume X, Part 1, Eastern Europe Region, Soviet Union, Cyprus, Document 61,” p. 2.

xix.      Ibid, pages 7-8.

xx.       Richard Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, (NY: Warner Books, 1978), 2 volumes, I:251.

xxi.      Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Volume X, Part 1, Eastern Europe Region, Soviet Union, Cyprus, Document 80,” p. 2.

xxii.     Memorandum: Suggesting Remarks in Connection with Dedication of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, CSP to RN, undated. Pre-Presidential Collection, Series 207, Box 110, Folder 4/7/3/59 – National Historical Park Dedication– Cumberland Gap, KY. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Yorba Linda, CA.

xxiii.     Ibid.

xxiv.     Untitled, Nixon’s handwritten notes, undated. Pre-Presidential Collection, Series 207, Box 110, Folder 4/7/3/59.

xxv.       Memorandum, “Trip to Cumberland Gap,” 6/25/59. Pre-Presidential Collection. Series 207, Box 110, Folder 5: Cumberland Gap (KY) Nat’l Park. Nixon Presidential Library & Museum.

xxvi.      Lee Winfrey, “Nixon Does Politicking at Cumberland Gap Park,” Knoxville News-Sentinel, July 3, 1959.

xxvii.     Ibid. Kyle Vance, “Nixon Tours Gap Park, Talks Politics,” Louisville Courier-Journal July 4, 1959.

xxviii.    Henry Hoe Oral Interview.

xxix.      Louisville Courier-Journal. July 4,1959.

xxx.       Ibid.

xxxi.      Ibid.

xxxii.     Middlesboro Daily News, July 6, 1959. Daily News staff reporter Jim Horner was quite taken with the     National Tobacco Queen, devoting more time to her than to Nixon’s speech. He even reported that Ms. Austin’s measurements were “36-24-36” while completely ignoring the Vice President’s physique.

xxxiii.     Ibid.

xxxiv.     Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1959; The New York Times, July 4, 1959; Knoxville News-Sentinel, July 3, 1959.

xxxv.       Lexington Herald-Leader, July 4, 1959.

xxxvi.      Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1959.

xxxvii.     Middlesboro Daily News, July 6, 1959.

xxxviii.    Diary entry July 3, 1959, Paula Donaldson. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Resource          Management Records Collection. Oral History, 50th Anniversary, Series 5, Subseries 3, Box 1 Folder 3.

xxxix.       Morgan Simmons, “a sight to behold: Cumberland Gap park anniversary to be celebrated,”, July 2, 2009.

xl.             Nixon, RN, II:257.

xli.            Rorabaugh, The Real Making of the President, p. 100.

Thomas D. Matjasic,  About The Author

Thomas D. Matjasic is a native of Youngstown, Ohio. He earned his bachelor of arts degree from Youngstown State University, a Master’s from Kent State University, and his Ph.D. in History from Miami University.  Dr. Matjasic teaches History at Big Sandy Community and Technical College in Prestonsburg, Kentucky.  A post that he has held since 1983.  Dr. Matjasic to date has received four BSCTC Great Teacher Awards, five NISOD awards for teaching excellence, and the 2006 Acorn Award. He served as President of the Kentucky Association of Teachers of History (1994) and served three terms on the Kentucky Heritage Council (1994-2006).   Dr. Matjasic has published more than twenty nonfiction articles and thirty book reviews, the most recent entitled, “It’s Personal:  Nixon, Liberia and the Development of U.S. African Policy (1957-1974),” White House Studies (2011). Matjasic resides in Hagerhill, Kentucky with his wife and three daughters.


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