50 Years After the Death of John F. Kennedy | A Hometown Remembers
Fifty years after the death of President John F. Kennedy, those who knew him and his extended family in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, reflect on a time when Camelot was their neighbor.
Jack Kennedy always considered himself a Cape Codder. Sure, some year-round residents bristled at that idea, but the truth is that for more than 30 years he spent all or parts of his summers at his family’s six-acre compound in Hyannis Port, a cozy enclave of big homes and Pennsylvania steel money that took coolly to the Kennedys upon their arrival in 1926. There, the future president learned to play golf, played football with his brothers on his dad’s big oceanside lawn, and swam and sailed the waters of Nantucket Sound.
He was a local boy who did local things. He walked to the News Shop in Hyannis Port to get his paper, picked up a new pair of Park Lane shoes at the Puritan Cape Cod clothing store in Hyannis, attended mass at St. Francis Xavier Church. As a teenager, he went to weekly dances, and in 1953 celebrated his engagement to Jacqueline Bouvier at the Hyannis Club. Even as his national stature grew, and then his personal life became complicated by the presidency, Hyannis Port remained central to his life. “I always come back to the Cape and walk the beach when I have a tough decision to make,” he once said. “The Cape is the one place I can think and be alone.”
It’s where he came in October 1959 and decided, with his brother, Bobby, to run for president. It’s where, a little more than a year later, he hunkered down with his family to await the election results, then gave his first speech as president-elect at Hyannis’s National Guard Armory. During the three summers of his presidency, Hyannis Port became his “Summer White House,” a weekend retreat where he welcomed international dignitaries and met with Cabinet members on his presidential yacht, the Honey Fitz.
But the Cape did more than just shape Kennedy’s summers. They shaped his image. Without Hyannis Port, there is no Camelot. There are no iconic pictures of Jack and Jackie out on the water, no breezy images of a doting father and uncle parading around on a golf cart stuffed with kids. Kennedy may have given the Hyannis area national prestige, but the region also offered him something that no PR campaign could ever manufacture.
Fifty years after his assassination, Kennedy’s ties to the Cape are far from forgotten. We spoke with current and former residents who remember the era and the excitement and the hassles that came with having the president living so close.
“He looked good, even better in person.”
Along with his nephews Richard and James Penn, Milton co-owns Puritan Cape Cod, an upscale clothing store in downtown Hyannis.
“The Kennedys came into the store all the time. The kids, like Bobby’s children, would come down with a driver. The challenge would always be figuring who was who so you knew whom to charge it to. There wasn’t a lot of pretense about it.
“I think the local community just let them be, and they appreciated that. Jack, before he became president, came in, too. He looked good, even better in person than on television. And he had a smile and a personality—you could just feel the energy coming from him.
“We admired him. He was a good model for us. We never considered ourselves Camelot—that was all manufactured—but it did put Hyannis on the map. It was already growing, but the Kennedy influence gave us that extra zap.”