Springtime is a magical time of the year for memory. When the grass turns green again and all the flowers of God’s creation miraculously bloom anew, and the last of winter has passed, we naturally want to remember what it was that made us grateful to be alive, to stare in wonder, even, and linger—at least for a while—in the recesses of happy memories before they become mists again and we must resume our lives in the concrete of the uncertain present. When this time comes around, a special memory becomes vivid once again for me.
It is the memory of when a mother took her son by the hand one day and walked him up the city block to the corner card-cum-book store and introduced him to the wider world, one he didn’t even know existed. It was the day she decided that it was time for him to go beyond the adventures of Superman and the other comic books he was so enraptured of and finally begin to read seriously. It may have been in May, of that I don’t remember. But I do remember the significance of that walk up University Avenue and into that store, which was between Griffin’s Bar and Sam’s newsstand and the deli that served up the best macaroni salad that was ever made and the ham bologna that tasted so wonderfully between slices of fresh-baked Italian bread from Arthur Avenue. It was through those doors when I was introduced, thanks to the pages of a large-print book (with plenty of pictures!) to the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, who was born 97 years ago today on May 29, 1917.
For those of a particular age, certain people can evoke memories and maintain a hold on our affections as we ourselves steadily (or not!) progress through the days, months and years of our lives. For Irish-Americans of my generation, it was John F. Kennedy. I have no interest here in rehashing the pros and cons of his presidency nor am I interested in debating liberal and conservative missives about his policies or whether his style of governance was correct for the time, nor do I care to hear the constant drumbeat against his character (or lack thereof) and about the scandals of his family life; the arguments go on, seemingly, in perpetuity. What can be said in that regard is that he was human and, like any other human, he made mistakes both personally and professionally.
No, none of that is the reason for writing about him. I write about what he meant to a shy, quiet Irish-American boy growing up in the Bronx, going to parochial school every day (at St. Nicholas of Tolentine on University Avenue near Fordham Road), in his school uniform of blue pants, white shirt and blue clip-on tie wondering about what it all means and trying to figure out the import of that phrase chiseled in stone above the door he passed through to start another day of learning under the watchful eyes—and rulers!—of the Dominican nuns, the Augustinian priests and sympathetic lay teachers: “FOR GOD AND COUNTRY.”
From the time I could read, I was fascinated by stories of people, especially the people that made history. As you can probably guess, I was born in that period when JFK was president and my formative years were formed by him. The pain of his assassination was still fresh for people in the late 1960s, especially for those who were Irish immigrants, like my parents. Being a reflective and unassuming type, I wasn’t a stand-out among my peers. I did not excel on the ball field for my eyesight precluded the career option of becoming a famous Yankee slugger and I certainly wasn’t a Johnny Unitas. As for my grades? Well, let’s put it this way: those in math were never in danger of going past the speed limit. All I had going for me was what I later considered my ace in the hole—my curiosity. (It was only in later years that I realized that I was merely following the sage advice of that renowned philosopher of life and baseball, Yogi Berra: “You can observe a lot just by looking.”) And that is where President Kennedy came in.
John F. Kennedy meant something to the psyche of Irish people—both in Ireland and here in the States. His election to the presidency took the opprobrium out of being an Irish man or woman in the New World—which persisted even at that late date. It gave legitimacy to a group of people who immigrated during a famine and worked their way up the ladder while enduring the sneers of distrust amidst weekly allotments of meager pay, ladled with generous dollops of bigotry—religious and otherwise—often sanctioned by society as well as government. It meant that the blood, toil and sweat of generations finally culminated in the recognition and success that came with ascending to the nation’s highest office and preeminence in the Free World. It was a long climb up and the election of a co-religionist also meant much to the other immigrant groups that made up the United States (and who built up this country, for that matter).
I discovered all this by listening to the adults of my neighborhood discuss the events of the day and one particular day the name of John F. Kennedy was mentioned.
I remember it well. My father, Harry, was talking to Mr. Reilly in the apartment building where we lived on University Avenue across from Devoe Park. This was the time early in the administration of someone called Richard Nixon. The only thing I knew about him was from watching his inaugural ceremony when he magically became Chief Executive after reciting some words while placing his hand on the Bible and rode in a big limousine down (or was it up?) somewhere called Pennsylvania Avenue while demonstrators pelted the car with eggs and tomatoes. My father and Mr. Reilly lamented the direction in which the country was going and Dad said if President Kennedy were alive, things would be entirely different and better. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next: Mr. Reilly started to cry.
I looked up at the two of them. What was going on? My father did his best to console his Irish compatriot, for he didn’t feel so good either, when he thought about it. He missed President Kennedy, too. They ended their conversation in the way Irishmen usually do, with an acknowledgment that the world was probably going to hell and sure, things were never going to be same again and it never would be like it was and do you think the Kerrymen will make it to the All-Ireland again this year? And with a figurative tip of the hat, they said their goodbyes, knowing that there was another day of work ahead and families to raise. (It was only when I was much, much older, that I understood and appreciated what Mary McGrory said to Daniel Patrick Moynihan shortly after the President’s assassination about never being able to laugh again, to which he replied, “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again. We’ll just never be young again.”)
The whole thing ran like a non-stop loop in my head. Politics, the president, the country going to hell, Kennedy, Nixon,Lyndon Johnson. What was it all about? Like every other Irish-American family in those days, my parents had a color photograph of President Kennedy hung in honor in the living room; you couldn’t miss it. That conversation between Dad and Mr. Reilly occurred not too long after that trip to the corner store where my mother, Ellen, got me that book—and because of the book and that grown-up talk I was privileged to hear, I had to learn more about this man who had such a hold on their hearts and memories. Mom was also determined that I would learn about John F. Kennedy some day; besides buying the book, she had actually saved the newspapers from that awful time when pride turned to incomprehensible grief, in order that I would somehow learn what JFK meant to my parents, their generation, and the wider world.
It was that intense conversation between two fathers about the world, being Irish, politics and this man named Kennedy that fired up the imagination of a parochial school boy. Thanks to the books he found along the shelves courtesy of the Francis Martin Library on University Avenue, one boy read about another boy who once upon a time was considered frail and unpromising, read (a lot!), endured bullying, questioned everything, listened always, learned perseverance through all kinds of crises, remained curious about the planet he lived in, smiled at the world when life was an uphill battle and made do with a ready quip as a defense against the unfairness of existence.
As a boy, when I was afraid—and that was often, unfortunately—my mother would nudge me, pointing to our framed President Kennedy: “But President Kennedy wouldn’t be scared!” That did it. I somehow had to learn to be my own profile in courage, whatever came my way in life. And I had my mother, my father and Mr. Reilly to thank for it, not to mention John F. Kennedy himself.
It has been long childhood ago now since my mother bought that book, Meet John F. Kennedy, by Nancy Bean White. Published by Random House, it was one in a series of “Step-Up” books to interest young readers in American history. My mother knew what she was doing back then—through gentle encouragement, she nurtured a future lover of books. And little did she know how enthusiastic a reader she would raise! She never bothered to bronze my baby shoes, but she did something more important, as far as my future was concerned: she left me with that book, and the lessons within it. I still have it; it is a little tattered from the years, and somewhat worn. As far as I’m concerned, it has worn well.
Thank you, Mr. President.