Terry Irvin was 9 years old on Oct. 24, 1959, when the phone rang.
This certainly was not an odd occurrence, as Irvin’s dad, Lawrence, was a successful local government official, businessman and among the leaders of the local Democratic party.
But for Terry Irvin, it was a moment that would stand still … and does even more today.
"Is youh fahtha theyah?" came a voice on the other end.
"No," said Terry. "He's out at the airport, meeting Sen. John F. Kennedy."
"Uh, yes," came back the voice, "this IS Senatah Kennedy."
Prior to the age of cellular phones, Kennedy was calling the Irvin house in Bloomington to say he was still in Chicago, delayed by weather but still planning to fly in for a presidential campaign stop in the Twin Cities.
Kennedy eventually got here, 2½ hours late, in a tiny Piper Cub that was supposed to land at the small Bloomington airport but, because of a nasty crosswind, came to rest in a nearby pasture. Kennedy tromped through a muddy field to get to a waiting car.
From there, he was whisked to a restaurant, Davidson’s (Lone Star Steakhouse is there today), where Kennedy gave a brief talk, shook hands, drank coffee and then, like Irvin, eternally became a part of the lives of Carol and Philip Trainor of Pontiac.
It was a Saturday and the Trainors were having a wedding breakfast in another room at Davidson’s. That’s when Kennedy poked in his head to say, “How ah yah?” shook more hands, congratulated them on the marriage and “as another good Catholic,” posed for a picture that to this day, 54 years later, remains revered by the Trainor family.
Their three-minute brush with Kennedy was such a big event, in fact, that when Carol died in 2005, a line in her obituary read, “A high point of her life was having President John F. Kennedy as a guest at her wedding breakfast.”
Then there’s John Koch.
You might know John. Manager today at Lucca Grill, the downtown Bloomington landmark, his first and middle name is John Fitzgerald, just like the president’s, and his initials are JFK, just like the president’s, and he has a daughter named Jacqueline, just like the late president’s wife, and he has a brother, Bobby, just like the president, and Bobby’s full name is Robert Francis Koch, the same as the late president’s late brother, Robert Francis Kennedy.
The Kochs, you would say, are big Kennedy fans, too.
So is all the world these past few days, it seems, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, an especially interesting facet when you consider that Kennedy was the 20th century’s shortest-serving president, having been in office barely 1,000 days.
Yet, obviously, he touched America as few have.
“My birthday is on Nov. 22,” says Terry Irvin. “But after 1963, we were never able to fully celebrate it because it also was such a sad day, too.”
Much like Ronald Reagan a quarter century later, the Kennedy legend stems, of course, from his charisma, looks and the passion he was able to spin across America (as Bloomington’s Adlai E. Stevenson, who served during Kennedy’s term as U.N. ambassador, once said, “Even those who don’t like his ways love him.”). It was solidified then by his horrific end, on TV, that’s been examined and re-examined every Nov. 22 since then.
Thus, much like the other tragedies to sadly follow, like the Challenger explosion and 9/11, those old enough to remember are remembering just where they were 50 years ago this weekend.
Among them is Mike Matejka, a local union leader, ex-Bloomington alderman and, much like Lawrence Irvin 50 years ago, among today’s leaders of the local Democratic party.
“Being a Catholic school kid,” says Matejka, “on Nov. 22, 1963, the nuns were heartbroken and tear-filled when the news came out. A TV was rolled into our classroom for us to watch. But first it was time for all the classes to kneel beside our desks and say the rosary. Probably every Catholic school child, and many of their parents, share this memory. As a child in a Catholic home, I remember there was a buzz about this good-looking, young president, with his star-power family, but also Pope John XXIII in Rome who was opening the church to reform. There was this hope that the world was going in the right direction and most especially, people were being included and energized.”
If there is irony 50 years later, it is, of course, that JFK spawned all that positive thought and warmth across America and then, by his tragic death (which remains largely unexplained and tinged still with talk of conspiracy), helped launched the cynicism that has grown and reigns today.
Or as that young Terry Irvin, now 64 and a State Farm Insurance employee in Irvine, Calif., might put it from a phone call he’ll never forget: “We still miss yah, Senatah Kennedy.”
Bill Flick is at email@example.com