2013-11-21 / Front Page

Lingering Memories of a Lost President

A Chance Encounter
By Jack Kelly

President Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr., in beached rowboat on Bailey's Beach, Sept. 15, 1963. President Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr., in beached rowboat on Bailey's Beach, Sept. 15, 1963. It was a hot and humid late Sunday morning in August of 1963 as our preparations for a day at Gooseberry Beach with family friends began. My parents were trying to load their four children, towels, beach blankets, diapers and other items that would make their day at the beach survivable. Once our family’s Plymouth station wagon was loaded, my father took his customary position in the front passenger seat and immediately opened his Sunday New York Times. My mother was the family driver and she gave all of her children a quick lecture on being on our best behavior at the beach. While she included all of us, it seemed to be addressed mostly to my younger brother and me; we could be a little rambunctious at times.

Our travel distance was less than a mile and we always followed the same route: “Morton Ave. to Carroll Ave. and around the corner to Gooseberry,” which was the mantra we chanted. As we came to a halt at the stop sign at Carroll and Ruggles, another vehicle approached the intersection on the west side of the four-way stop, heading east on Ruggles Ave. After a split second of looking at the other driver, my mother suddenly emitted a restrained shriek, slapped at the paper my father was reading, and said softly, “John, look, it’s him!” We all looked at the fourdoor white Lincoln convertible that was stopped at the intersection. The top was down and the driver looked very familiar, as did the woman and little girl in the front seat.

My father, always understated, simply said, “Oh, it’s Jack Kennedy. Go ahead, honey, you have the right-of-way.” It was a fairly common sight to see President Kennedy driving his family around the Fifth Ward. He would drive from Hammersmith Farm, the “Summer White House,” to Bailey’s Beach and friends’ homes in the Bellevue Avenue or Ocean Drive areas.

President Kennedy was waving my mother through the intersection and my father urged her to proceed. He had noticed the two, ominous black Lincolns behind the president’s vehicle and they were most likely loaded with nervous Secret Service agents. My mother looked at my father and blurted out, “I can’t go ahead of the President of the United States!” My father leaned out his window and said loudly and politely, “Mr. President, my wife can’t go before you, please go ahead.” The President gave out a laugh and proceeded through the intersection smiling and waving to my mother and father. Mrs. Kennedy also waved, as did the little girl in the front seat. My mother also let the two trailing black Lincolns through the intersection, but those passengers were not smiling or laughing; they looked straight ahead with a sense of purpose.

This story became one of the standard family gathering and party stories during the next 50 years. When I look back on it, I remember it simply as two American families that met at a stop sign on their way to a day at the beach.

On Nov. 22, 1963 I was a sixthgrade student at St. Augustin’s School in Newport. Around midafternoon the school’s principal, Sister Mary Roseanne, knocked on our classroom door and called our teacher, Sister Mary Bertrand, into the corridor. When she returned she had tears in her eyes and told us the terrible news of the president’s assassination in Dallas. The sisters released us early from school to go home and be with our families.

My mother was in the living room watching Walter Cronkite on the television and softly sobbing. She was talking with my father, who was at work. I watched with her for awhile but it didn’t seem real. Like many of the boys and young men of Newport, I had read about President Kennedy’s heroism and valor during World War II and I’d built a model of a PT-109. My father had served in the Navy during World War II and he thought very highly of the president’s actions.

The president was one of us, an Irish-American Catholic who’d shown the world that America was a strong and vital nation. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to kill “Our President.” I didn’t understand politics or know the level of hatred that existed in some parts of our country; that knowledge would come later in life. All I knew was that the President of the United States had waved and smiled at my family as he drove his family to a day at the beach. I also realized that his wife, little girl and little boy must be very sad on this day when most of the world was weeping with them.

JFK Remembered

Historian Margaret Medeiros will speak on the life and times of President John F. Kennedy, including his time spent on Aquidneck Island, on Thursday, Nov. 21 at the Middletown Public Library, 700 West Main Rd., at 6:30 p.m.

Original newspaper and magazine coverage of Kennedy's death, from the collection of S.J Caminis, will be on display through the month. The free event is open to the public. Call 401-846-1573 for more information.

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