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Kennedy memories

peterson MARTIN
PETERSON
 

This month the airwaves and the print media have been flooded with every sort of story marking the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. So why should I be the exception?

I had the privilege of seeing John F. Kennedy in person twice. The first time was on D Street in Lewiston when he was still a senator campaigning for the presidency. I don’t recall if it was in 1959 or 60. He arrived at the Lewiston airport and was driven in a motorcade to the Lewis Clark Hotel, where he was to deliver a speech. I was standing on D Street when they drove by.

In the spring of 1963, when I was attending Columbia Basin College, he came to the Tri Cities to dedicate a new reactor at Hanford. I had the good fortune to be there for his speech. Three giants of their time, President Kennedy, Senator Warren Magnuson and Senator Scoop Jackson were on the stage together. For me, it was an unforgettable afternoon.

I first heard of his assassination as I was walking across the parking lot at CBC getting ready to go to Lewiston for a weekend National Guard drill. Later that weekend, someone brought a TV set to the armory and we witnessed Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. It was a remarkable chain of events.

I never met President Kennedy, but I’ve had a handful of interesting Kennedy related occurrences over the years. I have known a couple of people who served on Kennedy’s White House staff. One of them, Dan Fenn, had a home in suburban Maryland with a pool which was a great place to cool off on hot summer days when I was living in Washington, DC. Dan became the first director of the Kennedy Library. His son, Peter, was on Frank Church’s staff for many years. In 1984 I had the opportunity to attend summer school a Harvard where Dan was one of my faculty members. It was wonderful to renew that friendship. Today, at age 90, he continues as an active member of the Harvard faculty. This week he will be in Washington for a reunion of the few remaining members of the Kennedy staff.

Although I never met President Kennedy, I did meet his brother Ted and daughter Caroline. Caroline Kennedy and her mother before her have been strong supporters of the Ernest Hemingway Collection project at the Kennedy Library. As a sometimes Hemingway scholar I have spent many pleasant hours doing research at the library. In 1999, I did the planning outline for the Kennedy Library’s Hemingway Centennial dinner featuring a group of Nobel Prize winning authors and hosted by Caroline Kennedy. Although my planning efforts brought great praise, I ended up being stuck in the University of Washington Medical Center having major surgery the night of the dinner.

But I also had one episode related to President Kennedy that, in my mind, borders on the bizarre.

In 1971 I was asked to co-host an exchange visit by a group of young political leaders from the USSR. When you do one of these exchanges, gifts for the visitors are almost mandatory. So I had a discussion with the State Department to determine what would be appropriate. They told me not to worry about it. They would take care of the gifts and bring them to a reception we were hosting.

True to their word, they showed up with several heavy boxes containing the gifts. When I finished making my welcoming remarks, I turned to the State Department person for the gifts we were to present. Out of the boxes came hardbound copies, in Russian, of the Warren Commission Report. There was something of a stunned silence. But I did have my wits well enough in control that I managed to make off with one of the books. It is still have in my library.

If for no other reason, I wanted to have actual proof that this had happened and I wasn’t simply making it up.

Perhaps the reasoning was that they wanted these young political leaders to be able to read the report and see that we weren’t blaming the assassination on the Russians. Or maybe it was just an insensitive blunder. Who knows?

Marty Peterson is a native of the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. He is retired and lives in Boise.

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