Kennedy’s Greenfield visits left lasting impression
FILE - In this Nov. 22, 1963 file photo, President John F. Kennedy's motorcade travels through Dallas. (AP Photo/PRNewsFoto/Newseum, File) THIS CONTENT IS PROVIDED BY PRNewsfoto and is for EDITORIAL USE ONLY
During a campaign swing through Greenfield in 1952 when he was a Congressman running for U.S. Senate, John F. Kennedy, in center, was flanked by, from left, state Rep. Joseph Cullen, D-Greenfield, with Phyllis O'Hara, Sebastian Ruggeri and Judge Samuel Blassberg in front of Greenfield's Washington Hall. - Submitted Photo
File-In the is Nov. 22, 1963 file photo, Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as President of the United States of America as Jacqueline Kennedy stands at his side in the cabin of the presidential plane on the ground in Dallas. Judge Sarah T. Hughes, a Kennedy appointee to the Federal court, left, administers the oath. In background, from left are, Jack Valenti, administrative assistant to Johnson; Rep. Albert Thomas, D-Texas.; Lady Bird Johnson; and Rep. Jack Brooks, D-Texas. (AP Photo/White House, Cecil Stoughton, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 25, 1963 file photo, 3-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. salutes his father's casket in Washington, three days after the president was assassinated in Dallas. Widow Jacqueline Kennedy, center, and daughter Caroline Kennedy are accompanied by the late president's brothers Sen. Edward Kennedy, left, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. (AP Photo/File)
GREENFIELD — John F. Kennedy got a tour of Wilson’s Department Store when he visited Greenfield during his 1952 campaign for a U.S. Senate seat.
But Phyllis O’Hara of Greenfield, who showed the then-35-year-old congressman around the store, had already met him five years earlier, as a schoolmate of his sister Jean, and her future sister-in-law, Ethel Seikel, at Manhattanville College when the then-congressman had come to visit in 1948 to inform her of the plane crash that had killed their sister, Kathleen.
When Kennedy — whose assassination as president came 50 years ago today — turned out in Greenfield, he was welcomed by attorney Sebastian J. Ruggeri, who was his campaign manager in this still heavily Republican stronghold, and he spoke at Washington Hall in the late afternoon before walking along the street to meet voters, according to an article in the Greenfield Recorder-Gazette.
Since Ruggeri — who used to boast that JFK’s run for the presidency began in his Bank Row law office and who would later attend the inauguration of the man he knew as “Jack,” as well as the funeral of his mother, Rose Kennedy — asked O’Hara that day to take the senatorial candidate on a tour of downtown businesses, including Greenfield’s premier department store, where she worked. Ruggeri, who was one of Kennedy’s campaign “secretaries,” says O’Hara, knew that she had gone to school with JFK’s sister.
In those days, Democrats were a distinct minority in Franklin County.
O’Hara, who still has a framed photo showing her with JFK and Ruggeri, together with Judge Samuel Blassberg and Democratic state Rep. Joseph Cullen of Greenfield, (the first Democrat elected to represent the district since 1903), recalls Kennedy walking beside her in the Wilson’s aisle with his arm around her shoulder, asking her, “So what have my sisters been telling you about me?”
“They’ve told me enough that I’m not going to that little gathering that you’re having tonight, thank you very much,” O’Hara told the bachelor.
“Then they’ve told you some of the stories,” said Kennedy, who was still several months from announcing his engagement to Jacqueline Bouvier.
Christine Ruggeri Lincoln, a daughter of Sebastian Ruggeri who now lives outside Troy, N.Y., vividly remembers visits by “Jack” to their home. “He oozed charisma. Even as a kid, I knew that. I got attached to Jack. He was tall and he was handsome.”
Lincoln, who was 14 when Kennedy died, remembers standing through the night with her parents until 7 a.m. or so in a blocks-long, 10-person-thick line at the Capitol rotunda where the slain president lay in state. The assassination was one of the only times she remembers her father crying uncontrollably, she said. “He was devastated.”
The family went to the funeral and to the wake, she remembers.
Sebastian Ruggeri, who would come to know the entire Kennedy family, had met the young JFK during World War II, when he was a lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Corps. Later, he served as Kennedy’s western Massachusetts campaign manager, and the family was visited often by JFK at their James Street home, Lincoln recalls. Several times, as a U.S. senator, Kennedy would call his Greenfield friend and say he was in the area, then be invited to drop by with his entourage and have dinner with her parents and the five young family members.
One time, Lincoln remembers, she rushed home from school because she knew Kennedy would be there and arrived just as we was leaving.
“He stopped to look at me and he smiled, and he pat me on the head,” she says. When he got to his car, he wrote on a napkin that he handed her father to give to her: “Dear Christine. I’m sorry I couldn’t visit with you. Maybe next time. Sincerely, Jack Kennedy.”
“He was very down to earth,” recalls Lincoln.
‘Late as usual’
That gathering, which was held at an upstairs Colrain Road apartment that Ruggeri kept, was a small evening reception, said O’Hara.
Later in the campaign, O’Hara recalls seeing JFK in Lenox, “a beautiful afternoon under the trees,” where she chided the candidate for standing around for what seemed like too long.
“What the hell are you doing standing up?” she asked him. “You know you’ve got a bad back. No one will care if you sit down.”
Kennedy, who returned to Greenfield through the years as a senator, often attending receptions at Ruggeri’s James Street home or visiting the A&P supermarket where Democratic Party Chairman Paul Barrett worked.
He also came back again for the dedication of the new Greenfield High School in 1958, but O’Hara, whose husband at the time, Allan McGuane, was secretary of the building committee, says the main speaker arrived late, and she had to leave before his speech.
“He was late, as usual. He was notorious for being late,” recalls O’Hara, who had to leave before his arrival.
In fact, the crowds that showed up Sept. 28, 1958 as part of that two-day high school dedication never got to hear Sen. Kennedy. According to the Recorder-Gazette, JFK “arrived after the dedication was concluded,” and spoke only briefly with the 200 people who remained. The future president “noted the role of the national government in education and stressed the need for citizenship training in addition to academic instructions in the schools.”
A bronze bust of Kennedy in the high school lobby is a reminder of the late president, who came to Greenfield that day, a little more than two years before his final election and five years before his death.
One of the GHS students in 1960, Kathleen Ann Finn, was president of the Young Democrats for Kennedy that helped raise several hundred dollars for his presidential campaign with a sock hop at the Greenfield Armory attended by 300 or 400 teens, and a Caddies for Kennedy Day at the Mohawk Meadows Golf Course. As a result, she was invited, along with her father, Albert Finn, to an election eve JFK rally at Boston Garden, recalls her brother, John Finn.
Near the framed photograph of the summer of 1952 campaign stop in front of Washington Hall, O’Hara keeps a framed copy of a September 1952 letter that Kennedy sent to her on congressional stationery. At the bottom of the typewritten “Dear Phyllis” letter apologizing for missing an opportunity to campaign again in Greenfield, but promising to return the following week is the signature, ‘Jack,’ with a handwritten note: “I’ll be sure to be there. Many thanks for your letter as it was most helpful and is the sort of thing I need.”
O’Hara, now 84, says she can’t remember what she’d written to him. But she adds, “I probably gave him hell for being late.”
You can reach Richie Davis at: email@example.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269