Kennedy in the Heart on the 50th Anniversary of Jfk's Assassination, Charles Mccollester Recalls How the President's Life Shaped His Own

By McCollester, Charles | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), November 17, 2013 | Go to article overview

Kennedy in the Heart on the 50th Anniversary of Jfk's Assassination, Charles Mccollester Recalls How the President's Life Shaped His Own


McCollester, Charles, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


As with so many in my generation, President John F. Kennedy's call to "ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country" struck a deep chord with me. A desire to serve was embedded in my heart, but his assassination -- along with the deaths of his brother, Robert, and Martin Luther King Jr. and the terrible war in Vietnam -- led me to question which America to serve and how best to serve it.

* * *

My relation to Kennedy began in August 1956, when I was 13. Our family spent two days visiting the Gettysburg battlefield, an experience that fed an avid interest in American history. My father's grandfather lost his hand at the Third Battle of Winchester with the New Hampshire Volunteers, and he changed his middle name from Lee to Lincoln during the war.

On the long ride north from Gettysburg to Rochester, N.Y., we listened intently to the Democratic National Convention on our 1955 Chevy's radio. Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson had thrown open the vice presidential nomination to a floor vote, and a charismatic young senator from Massachusetts made an unexpectedly strong showing against Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.

In a wild and dramatic finish on the third ballot, Sen. Al Gore Sr. of Tennessee withdrew his candidacy and threw his support to Kefauver. Pennsylvania -- with Catholic David Lawrence, Pittsburgh's mayor -- tightly holding the reins of power, gave all of its votes to Kefauver. Kennedy would have to wait.

* * *

In high school, I extended my focus from history to politics. Moving away from the Cold War preoccupations of the good nuns at my grade school, I became an admirer, under my mother's influence, of Franklin D. Roosevelt. My parents got me a subscription to US News & World Report. I read it intently, thrilled by the student sit-downs in the South. I avidly followed Kennedy's 1960 primary campaign and admired him for confronting the Catholic issue head-on before ministers in Texas.

An activist Young Democrat, I was invited to a 7 a.m. meeting in mid-September with Robert Kennedy, the advance man for his brother's campaign rally at the War Memorial in Rochester. He talked with five non-voting high school students for 20 minutes. A framed campaign brochure with his signature hangs in my home. He invited us to join him at a labor-union breakfast and a meeting with black ministers.

Days later, JFK addressed 8,000 enthusiastic supporters about the capacity of Americans "to meet any responsibilities or bear any burdens" in the cause of freedom. America can be a beacon to the world "if we are building a better society here, if we are struggling constantly and earnestly, if the president of the United States is indicating the moral imperative behind the struggle against discrimination in all parts of the United States, if we maintain in this country full employment, if we are using our great productive capacity to the fullest, if we are developing the best educational system in the world, a system which will turn out not merely mathematicians, scientists and engineers, but educated men and women who can make a judgment about the world around them."

Portraying a global struggle between slavery and freedom, Kennedy ended with an 1860 quote from Abraham Lincoln. "I know there is a God and that He hates injustice. I see the storm coming and I know His hand is in it. But if he has a place and a part for me, I believe that I am ready." Kennedy continued: "Now, 100 years later, we know there is a God and we know He hates injustice, and we see the storm coming, but if He has a place and a part for us, I believe that we are ready."

* * *

Two events in JFK's presidency stand out starkly. The first was the president's facing down of corporate America in the figure of Roger Blough, chairman of U.S. Steel, over price hikes that occurred shortly after Kennedy jawboned Dave McDonald, president of the United Steelworkers, into accepting the smallest negotiated wage increase since World War II. …

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