Rotary Reflections – John F. Kennedy
By Tim Berney
The entryway table in the house I grew up in was more like a fancy cabinet. I recall the first time that I opened the doors to it when I was about six years old. Inside the dark chamber, wrapped in light blue plastic similar to dry cleaning bags, was a stack of fairly fresh-looking newspapers. The date on each revealed that they were almost nine years old (the lack of light probably had more to do with their good condition than the plastic). My father told me to be careful as I gently brought them into 1972.
My parents got two newspapers each day- one delivered before they awoke and the other hit the porch before my dad got home in the evening. I often fetched it for him. Each edition was read and eventually made it’s way to an ottoman or the fireplace hearth. On Saturdays, someone was directed to take them to the garage. A few times per year, we’d load them in my mother’s 50 foot long station wagon and haul them to the recycling trailer.
Because of the semi-daily delivery, we had newspapers everywhere in our house. They introduced my siblings and I to Beetle Bailey, Dear Abby, and the great deals at Downtown Chevrolet. The papers were only useful until the next one arrived. So, why would we have a stack of ten old editions that were being carefully stored in a place that nobody ever disturbed?
‘President Kennedy Assassinated’ is the one headline that I recall. The rest were similar, describing the subsequent days after November 22, 1963. Jackie, Connelly, Johnson, and Oswald were not only the images on the front pages, but most of the rest of the entire front section.
I believe that I was aware of JFK’s assassination before seeing these hidden treasures. But, now I realized it’s significance to my parents. No other newspapers had been coddled and preserved at 3025 Middlesex Drive. With a family of seven (five at the time of the assassination) it’s hard enough to keep up with the laundry, let alone preserving major life events. Even my baby book only had entries up to my first birthday until it too made it’s way to the bottom of a dark cabinet.
I was forever influenced by opening the doors to that entryway table. There was some lost innocence in knowing that my parents were so moved by this event. I felt a little less safe. Someone shot and killed the president of the United States of America so recently that we have whole newspapers in our house. Abraham Lincoln and John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been two historical figures to me at that time, connected by the fact that both were killed in office. Only now, I realized that my family felt personally connected to one of them. It would live in the back of my mind. Not haunting, just aware.
One day, maybe a few years later, I noticed a black book with gold letters on the shelf of our formal living room. The Warren Commission Report. Here it was again- something my parent’s cared a lot about but never discussed- at least with me. I’d see other things that kept that hum going in the back of my mind- an old framed JFK portrait tucked away in a box of ‘stuff’ for the next charity who asked for gently used items; a cheap reprint of Jack and Jackie’s engagement photo; a never-read copy of PT 109. We were a Catholic family, as were the Kennedys, so maybe that was part of the connection. I never asked- I just wondered when something caught my eye.
Time passed. I learned about JFK and other presidents throughout my schooling. I realized at some point in time that most Catholics at my parochial schools felt a connection to John Kennedy. My teachers knew exactly where they were when they heard the news that he had been shot. As a child, it happened before my lifetime. As adults, it helped to shape who they were. Then, one day in my mid-20s I picked up a book about Teddy Kennedy; ‘The Last Brother’ was the title. In an attempt to explain the hows and whys of Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s decisions, failures, and accomplishments, the author provided plenty of Kennedy family history. From his maternal grandfather’s political influence in Boston, to his father Joe’s bootlegging and philandering, to the deaths of siblings Joe Jr., Kick (Kathleen), John, and Bobby, and also the frontal lobotomy of sister Rosemary. Fascinating. And finally scratching this itch that I had not been able to get to since I was six years old.
JFK was a great student of history. As a sick child for most of his youth, he spent a lot of time reading in bed. As a young politician, he was able to use that to his advantage, providing anecdotes and historical references off the cuff during speeches, interviews, debates, and strategy sessions. He eventually penned a book (two, in fact) called Profiles of Courage about historical figures that had made courageous decisions that changed the course of history.
Joe McGinniss, the author of ‘The Last Brother,’ flipped that switch in me. For the next decade, I would read over 50 books on the Kennedy family and piece together my own version of history. Some authors were fans, some not, while some seemed neutral. Most included the assassination in the book to a lesser degree, to make a larger point about the politics of the day. Of course, a few of the books that I chose were written solely about the killing. All intrigued me. This royal family that achieved so much but also paid such a big price for it. I ate it up but finally forced myself to move on to other subjects of interest before I could become that dull guy at the party who could only converse on one subject.
47 years have passed since I pulled open the doors on that entryway table. As I reflect on it now, I think about my father. He was a young business professional with a growing family in 1963. The events of the day seemed so tragic that he had to preserve them- maybe so that he wouldn’t forget. Maybe so he could move on.
After 30 minutes or so, we wrapped the newspapers back in their plastic protection and shut the door to the entryway cabinet and I never saw them again. Though not born yet, JFK’s assassination shaped my life too.
Thanks for the story Tim. I believe it was representative of many families, but Catholics felt a special connection. I have read many books on Kennedy, but he best biography of JFK that I have ever read is An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek published in 2003.
Thanks for sharing this , Tim! Beautiful written.
Fantastic, Tim. Thanks for sharing that awesome story.
Your poignant personal remembrances define the meaning and intent of “Rotary Reflections!”
I was only 10 years old, but also saved a paper which I still have. It’s hard to read about the triumphs and tragedies of this family and not be drawn in to learn more as demonstrated by your eloquent words.