by Carol St.Ann
The day I saw John F. Kennedy! By Barbara E. Taylor w/ Carol (St. Ann) Marsella
One Saturday Morning...
Barbara E. Taylor
Edited by Carol St. Ann
Have I ever told you about the day I saw John F. Kennedy?
It was a Saturday, the 26th of October 1963, less than a month before his death. There was, of course, no way to know that he would be gone from us within that short time. Instead there was a heady sense of anticipation and occasion because he was coming to Amherst College for the groundbreaking ceremonies for the Robert Frost Library.
My family and I were still settling into the small New England college town, having located there just two months earlier, and we had yet to meet all our neighbors. It was pure luck that we knew about the President's arrival and the planned assembly or "convocation," as I later came to learn it was called. Ten thousand people would descend that day upon a town whose total population was scarcely more than that.
The haze that autumn morning did not allow the brightness in the air to penetrate to the ground. My mother and I walked out our front door to climb the steep hill that was and is Northampton Road to the campus at its summit. As we moved along our street, we fell in step with two women headed the same way. In a neighborly conversation we discovered each other's identities. They were sisters, my mother's age or older. One of them, Miss Dwyer, as she introduced herself to me, assessed my age correctly as primary school student. She was a teacher of high school history. They were Roman Catholic Democrats, and they were making it their mission to see the President that morning. They soon learned that I, too, was a Democrat novitiate, a Kennedy devotee; and I was current on national politics, Robert Frost's poetry, and had a sense of history. A bond was born, in that walk, that has lasted for over fifty years.
Other neighbors and then other pedestrians joined us. I see us now, a jovial procession steadily climbing the hill to the college, stimulated by the hope that we would have an opportunity for a close encounter with the President of the United States, a President so young in years that he was my father's age. Miss Dwyer carried her camera - perhaps she could get a snapshot as a souvenir. My mother and I had not thought to bring one, and I presumed upon my new friendship to ask if I might have a copy of anything Miss Dwyer managed to photograph.
We arrived at Amherst College after a fifteen-minute march and headed for the roped-off area where President Kennedy would walk from his limousine to the auditorium for the morning's first activity: opening remarks by the College President, a speech by Archibald MacLeish, the poet and playwright, to be followed by President Kennedy's address. As we made our way to the enclosure, a tall, slender man in elbow-patched tweed ran his eyes over us and then moved on. He tried to blend in but there was no mistaking the intensity of his scrutiny. "Secret Service," we nodded to each other in expert agreement. It was good to see them on the job, although we were sure this cloistered corner held no terrors for our popular young leader. The idea that anyone would disturb or even injure him was laughable to us. This was Massachusetts, his home state! The boarded-up windows in the upper storeys of the college buildings made us laugh at the zealousness of his protectors. A month later we would remember those boarded windows and wonder. I still shake my head in disbelief.
A crowd gathered at the ropes, which extended from the curb of the college roadway to the door of the auditorium, the Amherst College Cage. We were permitted to stand on one side of the walk only and uniformed State Troopers were stationed every 10 feet or so, facing the crowd to keep order. At Miss Dwyer's urging, I wiggled my way to the front and found myself positioned with a trooper to my left but with a clear view down the sidewalk to my right all the way to the road. The Dwyer sisters and my mother ranked directly behind me and to my left.
Sirens sounded the approach, and before I was prepared for it, President Kennedy stepped to the curb and started down the walk. The flagstone sidewalk curved as college sidewalks do, so at first he appeared to be coming straight toward me. The crowd clapped and cheered and waved. There was pressure from behind me. Time stopped as time often will when one is in the midst of a special moment. I noted to myself that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the most beautiful human being I had ever seen, perfectly at ease, appearing as if he walked in his own spotlight with his reddish-gold hair gleaming in the non-existent sun. I suddenly realized in an era of black and white television, I was seeing him "in color." He was very slender, incredibly graceful, impossibly young and handsome. The next thing I heard was Miss Dwyer's disappointed voice saying she couldn't get a picture. Without moving my eyes from the President, I raised my hand to shoulder height, said, "Give it to me," and brought the camera to my eye just as he passed in full profile in front of me. I snapped the shutter once and he was gone, shielded by the bulk of the trooper.
Miss Dwyer shrugged as I handed her the camera. "Thanks for trying," she said, thinking there had been no time for the shot.
"No, it's OK," I said. "I got him right in front of me. If it comes out, it will be wonderful."
The crowd evaporated, and some of us made our way into the gymnasium where we could view the speeches on closed-circuit television. An hour or so later, we came outside to brilliant sunshine and made our way to the next stop on the itinerary - the actual groundbreaking with shovels and additional remarks from President Kennedy. It was the words he said standing at the outdoor podium in the full sunlight of a New England fall day that went to my heart and remain there, some of the most beautiful words he ever said. They are not among the most-quoted, but I believe they delineate JFK's personal vision and mindset better than many of his more famous words; a month later, it was as if he had spoken his own eulogy. ▼
* * *
On Saturday morning, November 23, 1963, I made my way to Miss Dwyer's house through a cold autumn downpour, seemingly designed by nature to mirror our national grief. I had not seen her in the four weeks since that splendid day at Amherst College. She was the one person, other than my mother, with whom I shared that day, and we needed to speak of it to each other that morning. We wept and talked, she as a teacher of history, me as a student of it, knowing we were living through an event of incalculable significance.
Later, as I was preparing to leave, she gave me the photograph - the smiling, profile shot of John Fitzgerald Kennedy I had taken in an instant when time stood still.