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In The Arena

In the Arena: ‘Everybody needs a hero’

The newest Facebook fad these days involves listing “little known facts” about yourself to your friends. While I’ve yet to participate in this ritual, it seems appropriate, especially on this day, to reveal one of my own.

For most of my life, I’ve been fascinated by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

It’s an interest that stops short of an obsession, but one that continues to have a profound impact on me, even though it happened four years before I was born.

Growing up on Smith Street in Greenfield, we lived next to an older, childless couple, the Sadlowskis, who took a real shine to your then-budding young reporter. Mrs. Sadlowski would have me over to visit at least once a week. One day, she produced a dog-eared photo album chronicling those fateful days in Dallas 50 years ago.

Up until that point, I knew more about Carlton Fisk than John F. Kennedy, but as she explained the story to me, complete with some very compelling photos, I became more and more interested. I remember wanting to look at that album almost every time I went back, always pressing for more details or some new angle on a story that clearly had an impact on her on a deep emotional level.

Soon, I began pressing my parents for their remembrances. Mom wasn’t an exactly a fountain of information and I actually think she viewed my new hobby as a bit morbid. My father also wasn’t very talkative, which was usually a good indication that it had affected him deeply, and why wouldn’t it? Ralph Collins and John Kennedy were both Irish-Catholic sons of Brookline and he and Patsy were clearly Kennedy Democrats — which means they would most likely be centrist Republicans by today’s standards.

My dad and I would talk about Dallas from time to time over the years, but never in the context of the horror of that weekend. Like I said, this was a guy who tended to throw emotional sentiments around like manhole covers, but I do recall one story he shared about where he was when Oswald finally shuffled off the mortal coil.

“I was sitting in front of the TV when they brought him out, and I remember saying out loud ‘somebody ought to shoot that son of a bitch,’” he said. “And then I heard the shot, and I sat back and said, ‘can you believe that (expletive deleted).’”

Yarns like that only whetted my appetite more, and I began to consume every piece of Kennedy-related media I could find. One Christmas, my sister Kathie gave me the “Kennedy Family Scrapbook,” a huge book filled with family photos and behind-the scenes information. What may have seemed to be an absurd gift for a kid my age swiftly became my most prized possession, to the point where the binding ended up falling apart from use.

As my interest in politics expanded, I became more intrigued by Kennedy, both the man and the politician. As I learned how government worked, I became fascinated by the public perception of his presidential record. In most polls, Kennedy is viewed as among the top five presidents of all time, despite not having a great track record during his relatively brief time in office.

There were precious few legislative victories, big business wasn’t wild about him and he had significant foreign policy challenges — mostly in Cuba and Vietnam — where there weren’t that many successes. But you’d never know it by looking at the historical “record.” The best example may be the Cuban Missile Crisis, which historians give him high marks for winning, while conveniently ignoring that it was his perceived inexperience that caused the Kremiln to gamble with putting in those missiles there in the first place.

I often wonder how a public figure as flawed as Kennedy, with the other women and the alleged mob connections, would have fared in today’s 24-hour news obsessed culture. When Sy Hersh’s book “The Dark Side of Camelot” came out, I remember admitting to my mother that my hero worship of Kennedy was beginning to fade.

“That’s really sad,” she said. “Everyone needs a hero.”

I believe that is what still makes this day so significant in the minds of Americans a half century later, can be summed up so eloquently by Ralph G. Martin in the conclusion of “A Hero For Our Time,” which, in my opinion, is the greatest book ever written about that era.

“In some mysterious way,” Martin wrote, “he did inspire hope in so many people all over the world — the excitement of hope. That excitement was real. That excitement still lingers.”

We desperately need to get that feeling back, but even if we never do, we will always have Camelot — and all of the symbolic promise that era still embodies, even five decades later.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.

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