JFK: The measure of the man

Island residents recall the president at the centennial of his birth.

President Kennedy sails aboard the U.S. Coast Guard yacht Manitou in August 1962. – Robert Knudsen, White House/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library

Celebrity is hard currency in some places, but on this Island, the gold standard is what you are, not who you are. By the accounts of those who interacted with him, President John F. Kennedy met the test.

September, 1963 weekend at Hyannis Port. President Kennedy drives nieces and nephews in golf cart. – Robert Knudsen, White House/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library

President Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was born on May 29, 1917, a hundred years ago this coming Monday, the second son from a tribal alliance of Boston Irish Catholic political families.

He was assassinated on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, on a Dallas highway in the third year of his presidency. Every American who had reached the age of reason that day remembers exactly where they were when his death was reported.

Jack Kennedy did a lot in the 46 years allotted him. Though he spent only 17 years on the national political stage as a Massachusetts U.S. congressman and senator, and ultimately the nation’s president, he changed national and world views with a message of hope and aspiration that included a clarion call for civil rights, and the establishment of the Peace Corps to help others in the world. Over time, it has become clear that his ascendancy and his goals came from something inside the man rather than from the politician.

You would have to be more than 65 years old today to have had a personal sense of the man. And understanding J.F.K. the man is essential to understanding his work. Several Island residents with whom The Times spoke do have defining anecdotes about President Kennedy and his occasional Island visits, sailing from the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis.

“Jack would sail over from Hyannis to the dock in Edgartown and pick us up for a daysail,” Rose Styron told The Times recently. Mrs. Styron and her late husband, author William Styron, had become acquainted with the President and First Lady Jackie Kennedy on the Washington and New York social circuit, although Mrs. Styron had first met congressional candidate Kennedy in 1946 while she was attending Wellesley College.

“I thought at the time that he was smart, charming, inquisitive, with curiosity, with a wide-ranging interest in so many things. I never thought of him becoming president. I was so impressed at 18 years old, and equally impressed decades later with a brave man, concerned with people and with correctly managing affairs of state.

“Bill was working on ‘The Confessions of Nat Turner’ at the time, about 1961, and President Kennedy was embroiled in the civil rights crises. Jack was always asking him about the black experience in America, what Bill had learned and believed as a result of his work,” Mrs. Styron said.

(“The Confessions of Nat Turner,” a novel based loosely on the life of a slave who led a brief revolt in 1831 Virginia, produced a firestorm of comment and a Pulitzer Prize after its publication in 1968.)

“I remember the president asking Bill if he would come to Washington to speak with the president and his [civil rights] advisors. Two weeks later he was dead,” she said.

Mrs. Styron and Jackie Kennedy became friends when Mrs. Kennedy moved to a large preserve in Aquinnah. Mrs. Styron’s daughter Alexandra and the president’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, have continued the friendship into a second generation.

Mrs. Styron mused that she had never seen the president ashore on the Island, but Charlie Blair, Edgartown harbormaster, did.

“We were young, about 11. Hughey and Charlie, Hugh Sampson’s son, and me would take their dad’s 13-foot Boston Whaler with a 35-horsepower Evinrude engine out on good days to water-ski off the beach on the Chappy [Chappaquiddick] side of the harbor,” Mr. Blair recalled last week.

“We were there off the Chappy beach one afternoon, and a guy came walking down the beach to us. it was just before the election, that would make it 1959. He wasn’t a household name then, but we knew who he was. He and Jackie had motored over from Hyannis, just the two of them, and he had anchored off the Chappy Beach Club. He told us Jackie had never water-skied and would like to learn, and he asked if we would be willing to take her out,” Mr. Blair said.

“I guess he figured we could handle it. In those days every kid grew up on the water. So we helped her strap on the skis and off she went with Charlie, who was 14, handling the boat. She got up on her first try and stayed up. Charlie took her on a couple of circles and brought her back to the beach. It was gratis. We were glad to do it. That fall, he won the presidency, and that ended those days. I never saw him after that,” Mr. Blair said.

“I know that in earlier days, his brother Teddy had talked him into crewing for him in the [Edgartown] Regatta race. What they did was three races. One race over here in the Wianno Seniors race, then sail in the Regatta, and sail back to Hyannis in another race.”

Farther back in time, reporting in the Vineyard Gazette reveals at least two occasions when a wet and bedraggled J.F.K. visited the Island on race weekends, probably before and after World War II, according to records unearthed by research librarian Bow Van Riper at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

In late November 1963, following the Kennedy assassination, the Gazette said as part of its reporting on the reaction to the loss that “the tributes paid on the Vineyard to the late President had a special distinction, since the Island’s relationship to him was closer than that of many other parts of the country. President Kennedy was a neighbor, with a home just across the Sound at Hyannis Port, and he and his family often visited Edgartown harbor to swim and water-ski. During the last three seasons, Vineyarders came to expect the President’s boat in the harbor from time to time as a notable but not particularly newsworthy event.”

Indeed. “He was a nice young man, but I never thought he would become president,” Norah Fuller of Edgartown told the Gazette in 1961, several decades after she opened her home to the young war hero during race week when all the hotel rooms on the Island were booked.

In a second Gazette story provided by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Kennedy and his brother Joseph P. Kennedy were more fortunate. They got a room at the Ocean View Hotel in Oak Bluffs while their wet and weather-torn sail was being mended in Vineyard Haven, thanks to the efforts of innkeeper Joseph Sylvia, who also provided dry clothes to the sailors.

If the measure of a man is taken in what he does, not what he says, then J.F.K. earned the respect of Chilmark waterman Lynn Murphy. In the fall of 1954, then Senator Kennedy made a trip to Menemsha to shake Mr. Murphy’s hand.

Sailing friends had alerted Mr. Kennedy to Mr. Murphy’s heroics during Hurricane Carol several months prior. Mr. Murphy is credited with saving 75 boats, and likely some lives, in daylong rescue efforts.

Mr. Murphy recalled in a later conversation, “I was working on a boat just then, so I didn’t have much time to talk, but I told him I appreciated him coming by — that was something he didn’t have to do.”

But it was the measure of the man.