JFK: A Centennial
(Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)
May 29, 2017 is the day that marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of America’s 35th President, John F. Kennedy. It seems incredible that the youngest man elected President, at age 43 in 1960, could ever have grown old. 1

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the second son and third child of Joseph and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy – there would be eventually 9 Kennedy siblings in all. John was named for his paternal grandfather, John Fitzgerald, who, known by his nickname Honey Fitz, was the first Irish mayor of Boston.

Two of Jack Kennedy’s great grandfathers – P.J. Kennedy and Thomas Fitzgerald – came to the United States from Ireland in 1849, due to the horrors of the Irish Potato Famine. 2

John (called Jack) was born in Brookline, a fashionable area of Boston. Although they were a wealthy and well-connected family due to Rose’s father, the Irish stigma still stung them. Joe Kennedy felt that his children would fare better in New York society. They moved there in 1927, when Jack was ten. Because Rose Kennedy felt torn from her family roots, her husband purchased land for her in Hyannis Port, so the family would have summers on Cape Cod. The family began their summers there in 1928, when Jack turned 11.

Jack Kennedy was always his mother’s son – he took more after her, while his elder brother Joe, Jr. resembled their father in temperament. Jack felt closer to his younger brother, Robert, and his sister, Kathleen; as he and Joe Jr. often sparred. 3

Jack did not have a facile childhood, in spite of his parents’ wealth and position. His brother Bobby recalled that “ half of the days he spent on this earth were days of intense physical pain. He had scarlet fever when he was very young, and serious back trouble when he was older. In between he had almost every other conceivable ailment. When we were growing up together we used to laugh about the great risk a mosquito took in biting Jack Kennedy – with some of his blood the mosquito was sure to die .” 4

Jack was an average student at his private Catholic school. After graduation, he attended college in England in 1935, then attended Harvard where he suddenly grew studious and graduated with honors. At this time, his parents were in England, where his father served as the Ambassador for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The rise of the Nazis in Germany and Hitler’s imposing threat to Europe began to grow evident, though Joe Kennedy seemed to like the Fuhrer. His blunt opinions about the English soon got him recalled, and he returned to the United States. Jack, who had also been in England in the 1930s – at the height of America’s Great Depression – had seen first-hand the clear threat of the Nazis and the English eagerness to pursue peace at any price. He wrote about the issue for his thesis, and his professors encouraged him to publish it. The book, Why England Slept , was his first. 5

Europe went to war with the Nazis in 1939, and America joined them in early 1942 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan and Germany were allies, and when the U.S. Congress declared war on Japan, Hitler replied by declaring war on America. Both Joe Jr. and Jack Kennedy enlisted. Joe was a fighter pilot, and Jack chose the Navy. For the younger Kennedy, joining the military was not an easy task due to his chronic back issues. He worked at a desk job for more than a year, then asked for his father’s influence to allow him to go to sea. The decision was life altering. Jack was assigned to PT Boat training, and was commissioned a lieutenant on PT 109, a torpedo boat that was to embark on duty in the South Pacific.

In the pre-dawn hours of August 2, 1943, 26-year-old Lt. Kennedy awakened to a terrible noise. A Japanese destroyer had cut through their small PT boat, killing two of the crew and sending the rest into the Pacific. The eleven men, some of them terribly wounded, clung to the wreckage for hours. Kennedy noticed a small island and encouraged the men to swim there. Those who could not swim were carried by Jack, who pulled them with his teeth as he swam. Summers on the cape had given him much practice. Kennedy kept the men’s spirits up, promising them that they would be rescued. It became necessary to swim to another island, since the one they had been on was uninhabited. At last they came to one with a village. Kennedy carved a message on a coconut and one of the native men took it to a U.S. Naval Base on a neighboring island. Jack’s parents – along with the families of the other men – had been told that the men were dead, declared lost at sea. The incident became national news. Lt. Kennedy was declared a veritable war hero. 6

The Kennedys were spared losing Jack, but sorrow was to visit them. In September 1944, Joe Jr. was killed in a mission over the English Channel, and his body was never recovered. Joe had been his father’s favorite, the one the elder Kennedy had hoped would run for President. With the eldest son gone, Joe Kennedy placed his hopes on his second son.

In 1946 Jack Kennedy, age 29, ran for Congress for the state of Massachusetts. He won. He served three terms as a Congressman, then ran for the Senate against the incumbent Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. His ran on his war record and his family roots in Boston. The entire Kennedy clan came out to help Jack get elected. Perhaps the most successful were the tea parties given by his mother, Rose. The public was invited and Jack, friendly and charismatic, charmed most who met him. When Kennedy won the coveted seat, Lodge lamented, “It was those d--- tea parties that beat me.” 7

At age 30, Jack Kennedy was dealt another blow – he was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease, an ailment of the adrenal gland. He also suffered from allergies. The many medications he took for these problems weakened his bones, and soon he endured several small bone fractures in his spine. He refused to complain or stay in bed. He pretended that he was well, and continued his quests. 8

When he ran for the Senate, a young woman named Jacqueline Bouvier, a correspondent for the Times-Herald interviewed him and sparks flew. They began seeing each other, though both were busy with their respective careers. Jackie traveled to London in early 1953 to cover the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and received two telegrams from Jack, telling her she was missed. As soon as she returned to the U.S. he proposed. They were married on September 12, 1953. He was 36, she was 24. Three children were born to the couple: Caroline, John, and Patrick. 9

Newly married and working as a Senator, Jack began to research the history of that august group. His studies led him to write another book in 1955. The book, Profiles in Courage , was published in 1956. It chronicles the bravery of eight notable senators throughout American history, who chose to do what was right, even if it cost them their seat, or threatened their lives. The book won a Pulitzer Prize. 10

Like Lincoln before him, John F. Kennedy, even if he had not been President, would have made something of himself for his notable ability with the written word.

The Kennedys at Gettysburg

Throughout the 1950s, the popular and capable Dwight D. Eisenhower served two terms as President of the United States. During his tenure, the nation enjoyed economic prosperity, small gains in Civil Rights, and tensions of the threat of foreign war with the Soviet Union and French Indochina – though Ike managed to keep the peace. Kennedy thought the President too aged and (incorrectly) felt he was not up to the task. Ike had been so adept at keeping the problems with Russia quiet, and the looming threat of Fidel Castro in Cuba, that Jack Kennedy thought he could do better. In 1960, he secured the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Since President Eisenhower had served for two terms – and had suffered a heart attack and mild stroke during his time in the White House – he was not going to run again. The Republicans chose Ike’s Vice-President, Richard Nixon, as their nominee.

The election of 1960 was the first one nationally televised. Kennedy appeared tan and relaxed – with his family surrounding him, including his expectant wife and daughter. Nixon appeared uncomfortable on television. On election night, Kennedy won by the narrowest margin up to that time. Nixon, to his credit, did not ask for a recount.

January 20, 1961 was a cold day in Washington. A snowstorm had recently blanketed the Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia with white. Kennedy appeared poised and ready. His inaugural speech was aimed at “ a new generation of Americans ” and was inspiring. Citing the recent wars, he spoke of the need for basic human rights and that the nation would champion those rights. “ Let every nation know ,” he said, “ whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty .” He spoke of our example of freedom as a “ glow from that fire can truly light the world .” He ended with the often quoted, “ And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you….ask what you can do for your country.” 11

As the Kennedys moved into the Executive Mansion, Ike and Mamie quietly drove to Gettysburg, where they received a warm welcome from the Gettysburg populace.

John Kennedy only served one thousand days as President. Though scholarly, he was callow and unused to the rigors – and dangers – of the office. A secret mission to thrust Castro from power in Cuba failed, known as The Bay of Pigs. Castro, incensed at the coup attempt, turned more to Soviet Russia. Khrushchev answered with missiles delivered to Cuba facing our shores, and the nation nearly faced nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy turned to Ike for help, and the former President gave sage advice.12

Kennedy’s tiring schedule plagued his health. Though he appeared robust in public, in private, his back pain caused him to sit in rocking chairs, even in the Oval Office.13

On March 30, 1963, the President, the First Lady and their daughter visited Gettysburg with a Secret Service detail. They took a guided tour with Jacob M. Sheads, the local high school history teacher, licensed battlefield guide and staunch Democratic supporter. They met in secret, behind a local bowling alley, and drove in a black convertible around the historic field. Sheads remembered that the President drove. When they approached the Eternal Light Peace Memorial on Oak Ridge, Mrs. Kennedy said to her husband, “ Wouldn’t that make a wonderful memorial for someone ?” They stopped at the North Carolina Memorial, and passed the Irish Brigade Monument near the Wheatfield. Ever the teacher, Sheads asked Kennedy if he knew the meaning to the Irish Brigade’s motto, “Faugh A Ballaugh.” 14

Sure I know what it means,” JFK answered. “It means ‘Clear the Way.’” 15

When Sheads took them into the National Cemetery, both Kennedys were clearly impressed with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Sheads reminded Kennedy that November 19, 1963 – just six months distant – marked the centennial of that famous oration, and invited Kennedy to come to the ceremony and be the keynote speaker.

Sheads actually was not the one to make that invitation, as General Eisenhower, the town’s most prominent resident, would not have appreciated it. It turned out that Ike gave that keynote address at the centennial. Kennedy told Sheads he wouldn’t be able to come to the event. “I have to go to Dallas, ”he explained, “and mend fences.” 16

A second term loomed, and Kennedy needed to prepare. He did go to Dallas, with disastrous consequences.

On November 22, 1963, John and Jackie Kennedy arrived at Love Field in Dallas. Jackie had recently recovered from giving birth to a son, Patrick, who died shortly afterward. The tragedy seemed to draw the couple closer – but a greater tragedy befell them.

That day, John F. Kennedy, age 46, was assassinated in Dallas. He left a young widow, age 34 and two small children. The day of his funeral was his son, John’s, 3rd birthday. Both parents survived him. Even his maternal grandmother, Mary Josephine Hannon Fitzgerald, who was born the year Lincoln died, was still living at age 98. 17

A small piece of Gettysburg remains in John Kennedy’s memory. His grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. is crowned with an eternal light, reminiscent of Gettysburg’s Eternal Light Peace Memorial. Jackie could not have known that day at Gettysburg, that when she noticed and complimented the monument as a memorial for someone, she would be soon fashioning one for her husband’s grave.

Those thousand days when Kennedy was President are a half-century past. It is unlikely that, even if he had not been murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald in late 1963, Jack, with his myriad health issues, would probably not have lived to be one hundred. He will always be considered, however, as a young and vibrant leader, the first President to be born in the 20th century.

On his 100th, here in the 21st century, he is still fondly remembered.

Sources: Angelo, Bonnie. First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents . New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power: 1789-1961 . New York: William Morrow, 1990. Baer, Bret with Catherine Whitney. Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission . New York: HarperCollins, 2017. Caroli, Betty Boyd. Inside the White House . New York: Canopy Books, 1992. Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage . Forward by Robert F. Kennedy. New York: HarperCollins, 1964 (Reprint, first published in 1956). Kerrigan, Michael. American Presidents: A Dark History . London: Amber Books, 2011. Interview with Colonel Jacob Melchoir “Met” Sheads, April 10-22, 1998. Colonel Sheads, a well-known Gettysburg historian, died on February 17, 2002. Whitney, David C. The American Presidents . New York: Doubleday, 1993 (Reprint, first published in 1967.

End Notes:

1. Whitney, p. 303. Theodore Roosevelt was actually a few months younger than JFK when, as Vice-President, he took the oath of office upon the death of William  McKinley. He had been elected as Vice-President, however. When he was (re) elected as President, he was a year older.

2. Angelo, p. 123.

3. Ibid. p. 128.

4. Kennedy, p. xii. The information was provided by Robert Kennedy, after JFK’s death, in the forward of the book.

5. Whitney, p. 304. Kerrigan, p. 189.

6. Ibid.

7. Angelo, p. 143.

8. Kerrigan, p. 193.

9. Anthony, p. 565.

10. Kennedy, p. xii.

11. Whitney, p. 309.

12. Baer, pp. 262-263. Ike has been unfairly blamed in part for the Bay of Pigs by some historians. Had Ike undertaken the coup, which he had avoided to keep the nation at peace, he would not have lost. This is the general who orchestrated the D-Day Invasion against Hitler, a much stronger adversary. He spoke about the ordeal with Kennedy only after the Bay of Pigs had failed. Before it occurred, Kennedy did not take Ike into his confidence.

13. Caroli, p. 101.

14. Interview with Col. Sheads, April 1998. It is interesting to note that JFK toured Gettysburg in a convertible. Another car, with Caroline and the Secret Servicedetail, followed.

15. Ibid. The monument with the inscription is found on The Loop, an area of the Wheatfield.

16. Ibid. On the 100th anniversary of thededication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, it was General Eisenhower who gave the keynote address.

17. Kennedy, p. xii. Rose’s mother was born October 31, 1865. She died in 1964.

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