Part of a series marking the 100-year anniversary of the birth of President John F. Kennedy in Brookline.
HYANNIS, Mass. — Cape Cod is the place where the legacy of President John F. Kennedy is probably still the most visible — even now with his 100th birthday next week.
Ninety-two-year-old Bob Luddington was — and still sometimes is, even though he retired just last year — an interior designer and consultant for the Kennedy family. He says the iconic white clapboard main house of Rose and Joseph Kennedy, and the two summer homes of the children, are an enduring reminder of the Kennedy family.
"The house is a symbol of the Kennedys because so much happened there, especially during the presidential years with different people coming there for conferences or ambassadors visiting heads of state," Luddington said.
The three homes in the Kennedy compound are in an unassuming residential neighborhood, mostly obscured from street view by tall wooden fences and shrubs.
Ethel Kennedy, JFK's sister-in-law, still lives there. Luddington started working with Rose and Joseph Kennedy, JFK's parents, whom Luddington still calls Mrs. Kennedy and the ambassador — from Joseph Kennedy's time as ambassador to London.
Among other homes, Luddington designed JFK's home in Boston, and the JFK birthplace in Brookline, and he helped First Lady Jackie Kennedy design the home in Hyannis Port that came to be known as "the summer White House."
The president's summer home is now owned by Ted Kennedy, Jr., son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and now a state senator in Connecticut.
Luddington has dozens of Kennedy artifacts, some of which will be displayed at the JFK Museum in Hyannis — including a note JFK wrote to his parents requesting an increase in his allowance. He also has several notes JFK's mother Rose wrote to her children.
"She bombarded the children with notes — two or three lines dashed off every day," Luddington said. The notes are straightforward, reminding the president to make a dentist appointment or go to church, and they were always written with humor.
In one 1962 note, after JFK's photo was in the New York Times, Rose gave some advice about her son's presidential appearances.
She wrote suggesting that "he not stand with his hands in his pockets, but to keep them down by his sides. P.S.: Other than that, you're OK," Luddington recited, laughing.
Like many Cape Codders, Luddington has fond memories of being so close to the country's most powerful family. He remembers Jackie Kennedy arranging for him to fly to Washington with the president when Luddington did some work for the family there.
"I had the great privilege of flying with him in the helicopter from Hyannis Port and then Air Force One onto the White House. I had many wonderful experiences with the family," Luddington said.
The helicopter landing on the Hyannis Port lawn or seeing the family around the Cape are stories that are retold seemingly no matter where you are on the Cape.
Several people — although they were very young at the time — recall Kennedy's campaigns for office, his love of the sea, or seeing him or other Kennedys at some of the family's favorite haunts — like Baxter's Boathouse or Four Seas Ice Cream.
Many people say they were energized by the young, ambitious politician who made Cape Cod his unofficial campaign headquarters. It was Hyannis Port where JFK waited for the presidential election results in his razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon.
And it was at the Hyannis Armory on Nov. 9, 1960, where JFK gave his first speech as president-elect.
"The election may have been a close one, but I think that there is general agreement by all of our citizens that a supreme national effort will be needed in the years ahead to move this country safely through the 1960s," Kennedy said.
Catholics On Cape Cod
The nation's first Irish Catholic president was cheered in Greater Boston but not necessarily throughout Massachusetts.
John Allen, executive director of the John F. Kennedy Museum in Hyannis, says JFK's nephew, Robert Kennedy, Jr., has explained that it was discrimination that led his grandfather, Joseph Kennedy, to buy a summer home in a place where he felt accepted.
"They came here because they were welcomed as Irish and as Catholics. It was Bobby Kennedy who pointed out they originally were moving south of Boston and one club the dad wanted to be part of wouldn't let him in because he was Catholic and Irish," Allen said. He says the Kennedys boosted the profile of Cape Cod, and there is still great interest. More than 60,000 people visit the JFK museum in Hyannis every year.
"It really gave an identity to the Cape," Allen said. "Here's an important family that could come here and be like they are — be a family together, go to cookouts, go to the beach and go to church."
St. Francis Xavier Church in Hyannis is also known as the "Kennedy Church." Rose Kennedy attended Mass daily, and the Kennedy family paid for the church altar which is designed to memorialize the president's late brother, Joseph Kennedy, Jr., a navy pilot who died in World War II.
Father Michael Fitzpatrick, pastor at St. Francis Xavier, said the Kennedys also brought attention to the Catholic church.
"They did not come here to be worshiped, they came here to worship."Father Michael Fitzpatrick
"Cape Cod was a Yankee stronghold forever. There were no Catholics on Cape Cod — or at least they didn't admit to it," Fitzpatrick said.
At 47 years old, Fitzpatrick was not around when the president worshiped at his church — but there are signs throughout the church, even the pew where JFK sat is marked with a plaque.
Fitzpatrick says the family's faith was important and helped make them seem accessible.
"The fact that they would come and worship like everyone else, it's a grounding point," he explained. "People are coming here to see and learn the legacy, where he sat and all that — which is beautiful. And at the same time, it can — if we're not careful how we set that in context — it can put the emphasis on the wrong syllable. Because they did not come here to be worshiped, they came here to worship."
'The Power Of The Sea' — And Preserving It
The ocean was a main fixture in the Kennedys' Cape Cod summers.
Dozens of photos show the family enjoying the beach or sailing. An often-mentioned JFK quote is: "I always go to Hyannis Port to be revived, to know again the power of the sea."
The president was often pictured in his boat, "The Victura," a 25-foot Wianno Senior sloop JFK's parents gave him for his 15th birthday.
The boat was made at Crosby Yacht Yard on Cape Cod. Each year, the Kennedy Library in Boston displays the Victura on its lawn. Each winter, it goes back to the Cape to be put in storage.
Greg Egan, general manager and vice president of Crosby Yacht Yard, said the boat has special significance.
"It has a lot of heritage to the Cape, to the region and a lot of connection to us as a company. Knowing that the boat was built here, the boat comes back every year to where it was born, it's a privilege for us to take care of it. And all of us see it as another boat we take care of, but this one is probably a little special in many ways," Egan said.
At the tip of the Cape is a large — some say the largest — part of JFK's legacy: 40,000 acres of coastal land known as the Cape Cod National Seashore.
It was JFK who started working to preserve the area as a U.S. senator. As president, he signed the law converting some 40 miles of coast from Chatham to Provincetown into a national park to protect it from development.
William Burke, a park historian, said Kennedy knew the geography of this isolated part of the Cape: the kettle ponds, the marshes and the beaches.
"I think every day I see his fingerprints all over this park. John F. Kennedy was in the right place at the right time for the formation of this place," Burke said.
Kennedy officially created the National Seashore in 1961, but up until then, it wasn't smooth sailing.
Local officials and private property owners were concerned about the feds taking control. But Burke says Kennedy's skills allowed him to navigate the politics of six small New England communities and reach an agreement with the federal government, the local governments and the property owners involved.
"This is such a permanent, lasting reminder of Kennedy's legacy and fortunately his forward-thinking to not only preserve the land, but of what Cape Codders are like and the magical, mystical characteristics of the outer beach," Burke said.
At the Cape Cod National Seashore visitor center is a JFK quote: "We are tied to the ocean, and when we go back to the sea, whether to sail or to watch, we are going back to whence we came."
Here's a list of Cape Cod events commemorating JFK's 100th birthday on Monday, May 29.
This segment aired on May 24, 2017.