JFK: A president who read Dante

On this day in 1963 we had half-day sessions at my high school, and I headed home with a last-minute stop at the drug store across the street from the house. The radio was on in the store; I don’t think I heard a whole broadcast, just a “headline” about President Kennedy being shot in Dallas. Both my parents were home when I walked in — dad worked at the Roger Smith Hotel right down the street — and I told them my news:

“Did you hear President Kennedy has been shot?”

I’ll always remember my father’s reply:
“OK, what’s the punchline?”

(Unfortunately, one of my favorite books at the time was an anthology called Sick Jokes, Grim Cartoons and Bloody Marys. Not the best start for an eventual journalism career.)

But I pretty quickly convinced my folks that this was not another sick joke, and we turned on the TV. It feels like we never turned it off.

While we watched, my dad remembered meeting JFK just before his election, when he arrived at that Waterbury hotel after midnight on a cold, rainy November morning, delayed hours after his scheduled arrival, and was greeted by a crowd of 40,000 or 50,000 on the city green. The election was in two days, and that 3 a.m. crowd in a blue-collar factory city was later taken as a sign that we were about to get one of the most-loved presidents in history.

“I want to see us build here in this country a strong and vital and progressive society,” he said, “that will serve as an inspiration to all those people who desire to follow the road that we have followed.”

In his speech that morning he quoted Thomas Paine and FDR and Lincoln, but also Dante:

“Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the coldblooded and the sins of the warmhearted on a different scale. Better the occasional faults of a government living in a spirit of charity, than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

I didn’t get to meet JFK that night, but my dad did, as “resident manager” of the city’s biggest hotel, the one whose second-floor balcony Kennedy spoke from that cold morning. Dad had the candidate autograph a photo to my mother and me. But not to himself, since, as a World War II Army veteran and Eisenhower Republican, he felt he had to support Nixon. (I was immensely proud of him in ’72 when he voted for McGovern.)

Kennedy also promised that, if elected, he would come back to Waterbury to say thanks — and dad smuggled me and a friend into the hotel to see him that time, Oct. 17, 1962. He called the 3 a.m. 1960 visit the high point of his campaign, and he promised he would be back in ’64. His brother Bobby came instead. There’s a plaque in front of the old hotel building.

Footnotes:

mild-mannered reporter who sank into computers and the Web during graduate school in the 1980s and '90s, then taught journalism, media studies and Web production, retiring to write and play more music.

Posted in Connecticut, Government, History, memories

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