John F. Kennedy's Final Footsteps At Home

Download Audio

Fifty years ago Saturday, President John F. Kennedy paid his final visit to Boston and Cape Cod, a region that defined his identity and helped shape his presidency. While the late president has been gone for decades, his presence is still felt. We begin a series on JFK's assassination, and the days leading up to it, with a recollection of his final trip home.

BOSTON — President John F. Kennedy came to Boston on a crisp autumn Saturday afternoon. He was fresh off a speech in Maine that was seen as the opening salvo of his 1964 re-election bid. His final visit drew intense news coverage at virtually every stop.

His first appearance was at Harvard Stadium, where he was one of 15,000 fans on what The Boston Globe described as a "sun tan" Saturday. He was there to watch the Harvard Crimson take on a Holyoke native, Archie Roberts, and his team, the Columbia Lions.

Harvard halfback and future Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger was on the field that day.

"It was just one of many things that was going on that day," he remembered. "The president was there, that was a big deal, but nothing that sort of stopped you in your tracks."

Players may have downplayed the president's appearance in the stands, but the man himself meant a lot to the team.

"My classmates and close friends, Republicans and Democrats, were influenced to pursue public service as much because of Jack Kennedy as anything else," Harshbarger said. "Whether you were for big government or small government, it was viewed as a decent, noble undertaking. He added class to it. And so that was the other thing, this was classy, to be playing football and have the president of the United States, a classy, young, dynamic leader, watching."

Harshbarger's main regret from that day was that the team didn't play better. The game ended in a 3-3 tie.

Holyhood Cemetery

By the end of halftime, President Kennedy slipped out of Harvard Stadium to attend to what was likely a personal, highly emotional moment. With reporters nowhere to be found, the president visited the grave of his infant son, Patrick, at Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline.

The 2-day-old baby died just two months earlier. He was born prematurely and could not breathe on his own.

Historian Thurston Clarke, author of "JFK's Last Hundred Days," said Patrick's death shattered the president.

"He had personally designed the headstone, sketching it out, and had told his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, to make sure it was installed before Oct. 19, which is the day when he was going to be in Boston," Clarke said. "So, this was all very well-planned. He also had already arranged to have a bunch of yellow chrysanthemums that he had brought with him in the car to the stadium that he then took to the cemetery to lay at Patrick's grave."

According to Clarke, the moment remained somber for the president.

"He stood for several minutes without speaking at the grave, and then finally turned to Ken O'Donnell — one of the president's top aides — and said, 'Patrick seems so alone here,' " Clarke said. "And then he began to speculate whether or not he would be buried alongside Patrick when his time came."

"We thought we were saying hello, and we were saying goodbye."

former Treasurer Robert Q. Crane

After his quiet moments at the cemetery, the president had his limousine stop along Boylston Street at what was then Schrafft's Restaurant for a butterscotch sundae. A front-page story in The Boston Globe chronicled how one irate customer, unaware of who was visiting, demanded service from the frazzled counter girl twice. The Globe reported that the waitress finally looked at her impatient customer and admonished her: "Can't you see who I'm serving?" she asked. "You can wait!"

With his sweet tooth satisfied, President Kennedy strolled down Boylston Street, back to his hotel at Copley Square. This gave headaches to his Secret Service agents who protected him as he mingled with passersby on the sidewalk.

Commonwealth Armory

Later that evening, following a meet-and-greet with Democratic donors at his hotel, President Kennedy got into an open limousine and headed down Commonwealth Avenue to the Commonwealth Armory to thank supporters at a huge Democratic fundraiser.

"Walking around this room, I've seen veterans of '46, '48, '52, '58, '60," Kennedy told the group. "My last campaign, I suppose, may be coming up very shortly. But Teddy's around, and therefore these dinners can go on indefinitely."

Among the 7,500 people in attendance that night was former state Treasurer Robert Q. Crane. At the time, he was a state representative from Brighton.

"We thought we were saying hello," Crane said. "And we were saying goodbye."

Crane knew the president from Kennedy's days as a Massachusetts congressman and senator, but was thrilled to have a private moment with the chief executive.

"I remember waving to him at a quiet time in the dinner and he signaled at me to come up to the head table, which I was surprised at," Crane said. "And I went up to the head table and spoke to him very briefly and all I can remember when I get back is my wife saying, 'There wasn't any photographer there to take your picture, was there?' I said, 'No, not that I know of.' And the next day, I was rewarded. The Christian Science Monitor had a picture of the two of us chatting on the front page."


The next morning, President Kennedy's day began in Boston with Sunday Mass at St. Francis Xavier chapel on Newbury Street. A crowd outside the church of about 150 people swelled to nearly 500 when word spread that the president was in attendance.

With the president seated 10 rows back from the altar, chapel director Father Richard Coakley told The Boston Globe that he would have had a hard time picking the president out of the congregation, had he been celebrating the Mass.

From Boston, President Kennedy went to Hyannisport for what would be his final visit with his father, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy. According to Clarke, this was the only place President Kennedy really considered home.

"All the Kennedys considered it their home," he said. "It was where they gathered every single summer, they'd known this house since they were young children. It's where they played lawn games, they learned to sail, they swam. It's where this huge family got together, and not just in the summer, but they always went there at Thanksgiving as well."

To this day, Hyannisport honors its favorite son. Fifty years later, tourists from all over the world still flock to the John F. Kennedy Memorial overlooking Lewis Bay.

The John F. Kennedy museum in Hyannis, Mass. (Steve Brown/WBUR)
The JFK museum in Hyannis (Steve Brown/WBUR)

The John F. Kennedy Museum in downtown Hyannis boasts photo exhibits of the late president and his family. Museum curator Rebecca Pierce-Merrick said the Cape was President Kennedy's favorite place.

"He loved coming to the Cape. He loved Hyannisport," she said. "From his boyhood years here to just before his death, this was a place he was constantly drawn to. As Senator Kennedy said, he was happiest of all when he was here in Hyannisport."

On that final visit to Hyannisport, the president kept a low profile. He was spotted taking a short cruise aboard a powerboat with his father and cousin. He then spent the rest of his time inside, visiting with family and friends.

After one more night, the presidential helicopter landed on the lawn of the compound, waiting to whisk President Kennedy to Otis Air Force Base for the flight back to Washington.

According to Clarke, before leaving that chilly fall morning, the president visited with his father one last time.

Clarke said: "He touches his father on the shoulder and he says, 'Look who's here, Dad.' And then he kisses his father on the top of his head, and then as he leaves he whispers to the nurse, 'Take good care of Dad before I come back.' "

But President Kennedy never did come back. Less than five weeks later, on Nov. 22, 1963, he was assassinated in Dallas.

This program aired on October 18, 2013.

Headshot of Steve Brown

Steve Brown Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live