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Brushes With Greatness: Kennedy’s Charisma

  • Nancy Carr of Lebanon at her home on Nov. 15, 2013. As Lebanon High School student, Nancy Carr shook John F. Kennedy's hand when he was at Dartmouth for a presidential campaign appearance. She also marched in the high school band that participated in Kennedy's inaugural parade.<br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Nancy Carr of Lebanon at her home on Nov. 15, 2013. As Lebanon High School student, Nancy Carr shook John F. Kennedy's hand when he was at Dartmouth for a presidential campaign appearance. She also marched in the high school band that participated in Kennedy's inaugural parade.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap

  • U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., walks across the Dartmouth College campus during an appearance at the school in March 1960. (Dartmouth College Library photograph)

    U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., walks across the Dartmouth College campus during an appearance at the school in March 1960. (Dartmouth College Library photograph)

  • President Kennedy greets the crowd after speaking in the football stadium of Great Falls (Montana) High School, just two months before his death. <br/><br/>Jim Tonkovich photograph

    President Kennedy greets the crowd after speaking in the football stadium of Great Falls (Montana) High School, just two months before his death.

    Jim Tonkovich photograph

  • Tonkovich photograph

    Tonkovich photograph

  • Nancy Carr of Lebanon at her home on Nov. 15, 2013. As Lebanon High School student, Nancy Carr shook John F. Kennedy's hand when he was at Dartmouth for a presidential campaign appearance. She also marched in the high school band that participated in Kennedy's inaugural parade.<br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., walks across the Dartmouth College campus during an appearance at the school in March 1960. (Dartmouth College Library photograph)
  • President Kennedy greets the crowd after speaking in the football stadium of Great Falls (Montana) High School, just two months before his death. <br/><br/>Jim Tonkovich photograph
  • Tonkovich photograph

John F. Kennedy is remembered perhaps as much for his personality as his politics, and even half a century after his assassination, his warmth and charisma are fresh in the minds of those who had the opportunity to meet him.

Several Upper Valley residents experienced firsthand the magnetism that captivated people of all ages and political persuasions.

Here are their stories.

Jim Tonkovich was a senior at Great Falls High School in September 1963, when President Kennedy visited the Montana town. The school’s football stadium was the only place large enough to accommodate the crowd of about 10,000 that gathered to hear him speak.

“I think it’s hard for a lot of people these days to get a sense of how revered he was,” said Tonkovich, a Wilder resident. “It didn’t matter whether you were a Democrat or Republican. People fainted when he shook their hand. They were just so taken.”

A trumpet player, Tonkovich still remembers performing with the school band that day.

“It was pretty darned special when you are in a high school band and you get to play Hail to the Chief ” for the president, he said.

He was in the stands when Kennedy spoke and snapped a picture of him shaking hands with spectators in the front rows. Even from several feet away, he had a sense of Kennedy’s powerful presence.

“There was just this aura around him. It’s hard to explain,” he said. “He was the rock star of the day.”

Beyond Kennedy’s star quality, his visit to Great Falls was layered with personal and political significance. The president had come to the city at the invitation of Sen. Mike Mansfield. The two men were very close, and Kennedy visited Mansfield’s family for coffee, Tonkovich said.

“We felt, ‘Gee, he’s one of us.’ ”

Also, Great Falls is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, where the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles were first deployed. With the threat of nuclear war looming in the background, Kennedy’s confidence was reassuring. “Everything that he brought, saying were going to be strong and resist the Russians,” along with Kennedy’s dedication to “working it out” gave the visit special resonance, Tonkovich said.

The school yearbook was dedicated to Kennedy “because we felt so close to him,” he said.

As a teenager, Nancy Carr wasn’t much into politics. But with Kennedy and his family so often in the public eye, she was aware of his “extraordinary charisma and a certain power within him,” Carr said in an email.

And when his presidential campaign brought him to the Upper Valley, Carr was in the crowded bleachers. Afterward, the Lebanon High School student scrambled through the throng to shake his hand.

“He looked right through me, not acknowledging me or anyone directly,” she said. “Nonetheless, I was thrilled to have connected with a hero, as I perceived him.”

A few years later, she would see Kennedy again, when the school band was chosen to play at his inauguration in Washington, D.C. Carr, who played snare drum, remembers the band’s maroon uniforms, their white shoes and the frigid temperatures.

“It was so cold that one of the girls in band actually fainted,” she said.

Like some of her classmates, she snuck a peek at the Kennedys, risking the ire of their director, Stuart Morash, who had warned them to keep their eyes trained straight ahead.

“I just had to take a look at Jack and Jackie,” she said. And as the band marched by, she spotted them, “way up in their box,” waving to the crowd.

“I think they were just cold like the rest of us,” she said.

Fifty years later, Carr remembers how easy it was for people of all ages to relate to the couple and describes their influence as “striking.”

“I don’t think any of us (understand) totally why they have had that much impact,” she said.

F.X. Flinn was an elementary school student living in Huntington, on New York’s Long Island, when he saw the man who would become his first hero.

Two days before the 1960 election, Kennedy was on Long Island, heading to Commack Arena for a rally. Flinn’s family packed up their blue Chevy station wagon and drove to stake out a spot on Veterans Memorial Highway.

“Car after car after car” lined both sides of road to watch the motorcade pass, the Quechee resident said. “People were just parallel parked for a few miles.”

The motorcade came within about 15 feet of the family, with Kennedy standing in the back of an open limousine. As they passed, he locked eyes with Flinn’s father and pantomimed counting kids. “He pointed four quick separate times and gave my dad a thumbs up and a big smile,” said Flinn, the oldest of four.

Having an “up close and personal moment” with the man his entire family so deeply admired made him want to find out more about Kennedy. He began reading newspaper stories about him and watched his inaugural speech, which gave him “a sensation of citizenship.”

“He had a quality that enabled him to exert a political leadership that we have not seen before, and that’s what the word ‘charisma’ points to,” said Flinn, a Hartford selectman. As an example, he points to the Peace Corps, a popular and “fundamentally good” idea.

“A lot of people were attracted to the Peace Corps … and very motivated by this man’s words and the way he delivered them,” he said.

A few years later, Flinn saw Kennedy again, this time in Manhattan. He and his mother stepped out of the subway into a big crowd. In the middle of the group was President Kennedy, who was standing on something and finishing a speech. It was “a quick hit,” but confirmed his initial impression of Kennedy, Flinn said. “What I remember from that was there is something different about his presence.”

It was a presence whose passing he still mourns.

“When he was assassinated, it was like this great experience of this unusual human being with this charisma being lost,” he said. “It made everyone look for the next person with charisma to come along. I haven’t seen it.”

Margaret Kingston was 15 years old when she happened to catch sight of the Kennedys. She and her family, who lived in Miami, were visiting Washington, D.C. They were inside a restaurant when everyone suddenly began running toward the front door. Someone said a motorcade with the Prince Rainer III of Monaco was coming, and they stepped outside to watch. “We saw (Kennedy) in an open car,” along with the prince, Grace Kelly’s husband, said Kingston, who now lives in Unity.

They were waving to onlookers, who spilled out of shops up and down the street to watch them pass.

“You would have thought you saw a couple of movie stars or something,” Kingston said. “I said to my father, ‘Just think, I just saw the president.’ ”

Looking back, she has “a lot of disappointment” in some aspects of Kennedy’s legacy, including the space program, which used resources that might have been better spent helping seniors and young people, she said. Nonetheless, the experience of seeing Kennedy was “wonderful.”

“I remember him quite vividly,” she said. “Then, I thought he was the greatest.”

A chance conversation with Kennedy in October 1960 made an indelible impression on Wesley Springhorn, of Hanover. It was Columbus Day, and Springhorn, then a graduate student at New York University, was in Central Park looking for a place to study. He found a seat in an empty viewing stand set up for the holiday parade.

As it happened, he’d picked a spot “right next to where the muckety-mucks were going to sit,” Springhorn said in a telephone interview.

People started trickling in, and perhaps because he was well dressed — students wore jackets and ties to class back then — no one chased him away, he said. “Suddenly, John F. Kennedy came bounding across 5th Avenue with his campaign entourage, headed directly toward me,”

At the time, Springhorn was trying to quit smoking and was using a cigarette holder to “wean” himself off cigarettes. “Are you trying to look like FDR?” Kennedy asked him.

“Oh, how do you do?” Springhorn said, and wished him luck in his campaign. Then, the “tan and dapper-looking” Kennedy took a seat several feet away.

“I could have fallen out of the stands,” said Springhorn, who remembers being struck by “the big smile, the glad-handing.”

“He was a very outgoing guy,” he said. “You got a feeling that he was a very warm, compassionate guy.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.

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