Former White House staff member shares personal experiences
A living piece of John F. Kennedy’s legacy made its way to the Keene State College campus. Dan Fenn, a former member of President Kennedy’s White House Staff and founding director of the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, spoke at the Alumni Recital Hall in the Redfern Arts Center on Nov. 12, 2013.
In front of a crowd of about 70 students, community members and KSC faculty and officials, Fenn shared anecdotes from his time around Kennedy and provided an inside view of the former President’s everyday life.
“One person can make a difference, and everyone should try,” JFK once said.
“He did it, he made the difference,” Fenn stated when asked about what this generation should remember about the thirty-fifth President of the U.S.
In a conversation with director of the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Henry Knight, Fenn remembered when he first met JFK.
In 1949, Fenn worked for JFK during his second term in Congress and continued to work around him until his assassination in 1963. Fenn stated that at the Harvard Commencement, two weeks before JFK got the democratic nomination for President, he had no entourage or secret service around him.
“I always called him Jack, until he became ‘Mr. President,’” Fenn said. Fenn was one of the 77 people who worked in the White House in those days. To illustrate how things have changed, Fenn recalled talking “to a woman that does for President Obama what I did for JFK. She was surprised, she said, ‘I would have to ask permission from this person and that person’. Not in my time, I never had to call the Secretary of Defense to ask for permission,” Fenn stated. “I used to call the Secretaries by their first name,” he added.
According to Fenn, “Mr. President” was very funny. Even though, “He never told jokes, JFK had a very good sense of humor.”
Fenn remembered that once, a White House staff member said to JFK, “Mr. President, I am not sure what I am supposed to be doing around here.”
To this, the president responded, “Don’t worry, I don’t know what I am supposed to be doing around here either.”
Fenn recalled one morning that JFK called a meeting and asked if people had read the New York Times. There was an article that quoted Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev saying, “In the case of a nuclear war, the living will envy the dead.” Then JFK turned to his speech writer and said, “Why can’t you write stuff like that for me?”
Fenn also said JFK was very modest and that he was very team-oriented when it came to leading his staff.
“It [JFK’s administration] was a joint project. We are all in this together. We are extremely loyal to him and he was extremely loyal to us,” Fenn said.
He recalled that even though Kennedy “was a great leader,” he would try to get his staff involved in his decisions. “Meetings sounded like faculty meetings, he asked questions that would help him make up his mind,” Fenn said.
About JFK’s administration, Fenn said Kennedy saw civil rights as a moral issue. However, he said at the beginning of his presidency, he didn’t want to “push civil rights because he had many things that he wanted to pass through Congress.”
Fenn explained that at that time, southern conservatives were in power and would ban other proposals if Kennedy had civil rights as his top priority.
Still, Fenn said later, some of JFK’s great achievements were related to civil rights. JFK desegregated federal work force, meaning African American citizens could work for the federal government.
Also, he desegregated the interstate bus line, so black and white Americans could ride on the same coach.
“Kennedy had a meeting with the head of U.S. Steel and persuaded him to desegregate their workforce,” Fenn said.
Regarding the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion, Fenn said Kennedy, “took [the] blame for it.”
“I didn’t ask the questions that I should have asked,” Kennedy had said.
Fenn referred to President Kennedy as “a realist posing as an idealist.” According to Fenn, JFK believed strongly in politics and public service. “Everyone should spend some time in public service during their professional career,” Kennedy had said.
The event at KSC was planned as a memorial for the fifty year anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.
Fenn said he remembered that day in November, 1963.
“It was a beautiful day, cool,” he began. Someone came in the room where Fenn was having lunch, “with a piece of paper and said, ‘The President is dead.’ People asked, ‘Which president?’ They couldn’t believe it,” he said.
About JFK’s funeral, Fenn said, “Washington, D.C. was dead-silent. Hundreds of thousands of people, and it was dead-silent, not a cough, no feet shuffling […] The only thing I could hear were the soles of a sailor’s shoes on pavement as he walked by.”
For Fenn, Kennedy’s death had a personal impact. “It was not just the death of a public figure. It was the sudden death of a close friend,” he said.
Coming close to the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, Fenn stated, “I would like to go to sleep and not wake up until the first of December to avoid going through this again.”
Finally, Fenn said he wanted to focus on JFK’s life achievements. “Much more important than his death was his life,” he said.
As a closing statement, Knight, the moderator of the conversation, told Fenn, “Thank you for helping us remember the life of JFK, and not just a day in November.”
KSC juniors Kelly Welch and Ryan Mahan attended the event.
Both students agreed that Fenn’s stories helped them look at an important period of U.S. history from a new perspective.
“Learning history from someone that was actually there is much more empowering than learning from books,” Welch said.
Mahan said he thought it was great to be able to relate class learning to a real life experience.
“That was the tragedy of their time. We grew up with nine eleven [9/11], and we lived that and saw the effects but for them, that was the tragedy of their generation,” Mahan stated. Fifty years after “the tragedy,” one of his closest staff members shared a piece of JFK’s life with KSC.
“One person can make a difference and everyone should try.” -John F. Kennedy.
“I think that is the legacy he left all of us,”Fenn.
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