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At His Birthplace In Brookline, Historians Preserve Stories Of JFK's Early Years06:49
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Visitors to the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site walk down the path toward the entrance in the rear. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Visitors to the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site walk down the path toward the entrance in the rear. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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Part of a series marking the 100-year anniversary of the birth of President John F. Kennedy in Brookline.

A great point of pride for the town of Brookline is that it is the place where the 35th president of the United States was born.

President John F. Kennedy remains a beloved national figure for many — but it all started with his early upbringing in Brookline.

The plaque in the front yard of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site on Beals Street in Brookline. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The plaque in the front yard of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site on Beals Street in Brookline. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Inside The Kennedy Household

The voice of the late Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, JFK's mother and daughter of Boston Mayor “Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, greets visitors through a recording at 83 Beals St. Bought in 1914, it was the Kennedys' first homestead.

It was also the scene of the birth and the very early years of the future president. The house is now overseen by the National Parks Service and is known as the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site.

Supervisory Park Ranger Jim Roberts guides visitors through the site. He pauses at a bedroom on the second floor.

"This is one of two beds in this room," he explains, "and this is where John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon."

When JFK was born, he already had a 2-year-old brother, Joseph Kennedy, Jr., who was born in Hull. His sisters Rosemary and Kathleen would later be born inside their modest home, in the same narrow bed at which Roberts points.

Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., sits in the lap of his aunt, Agnes Fitzgerald, in Brookline, Massachusetts. Woman and baby at right are unidentified. (Courtesy JFK Library and Museum in Boston)
Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., sits in the lap of his aunt, Agnes Fitzgerald, in Brookline, Massachusetts. Woman and baby at right are unidentified. (Courtesy JFK Library and Museum in Boston)

In that era, the Kennedy household was a new construction, built in 1909, Roberts says, explaining that it was essentially a starter home for the young family and the smallest house on the street.

"When they bought the house, it was the last house on the block," says Brookline Historical Society President Ken Liss.

"Because the Beacon Street trolley had been put in, it made it easy to live out here in Brookline and easily get into Boston to work," Liss continued. "So a lot of professionals like Joe Kennedy were moving into this neighborhood."

Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., poses with his sons beside a car in Brookline, Massachusetts; Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (right), and John F. Kennedy stand on the car's running board. (Courtesy JFK Library and Museum in Boston)
Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., poses with his sons beside a car in Brookline, Massachusetts; Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (right), and John F. Kennedy stand on the car's running board. (Courtesy JFK Library and Museum in Boston)

JFK Was Not Expected To Survive

The boy born to the young Irish-American bank president and his bride in that Beals Street home was wracked by childhood illnesses.

JFK "had mumps, measles, German measles, chicken pox, whooping cough," Roberts explained. "Also, in this home, he came down with scarlet fever and it is during that time that he is given last rites. They did not expect him to survive."

As a toddler, JFK spent six weeks at Boston City Hospital, and historians believe his stay there saved his life.

"But also, Mr. Kennedy went to church and prayed for God to save his second son, and that he would donate half of his fortune if his son survived," Roberts says. "And he did [survive], and Mr. Kennedy did donate half of his wealth to a Catholic charity for orphans."

A Dreamer — But A Less-Than-Stellar Student

"He would travel in his mind in order to escape the reality of being stuck in a bed."

Jim Roberts, of the JFK Historic Site

Once healthy again, JFK attended the Edward Devotion School, a public school in Coolidge Corner. Then, he would attend the Dexter School, a private school elsewhere in Brookline. He was a poor student.

"If you look at his report cards — well, now some students might think it’s a good grade — but he got an awful lot of Cs, particularly in government," says Marie Natoli, a political science professor at Emmanuel College.

But his mind wasn't entirely unfocused.

"He had an extraordinary reading capacity," Natoli says. "And I think the major reason for that was because he was sick so often."

The boy called “Jack” became a dreamer. Park Ranger Roberts says he devoured adventure stories and fantasies like "Gulliver’s Travels," "Treasure Island" and the "Tales of King Arthur."

"So he would travel in his mind in order to escape the reality of being stuck in a bed," explains Roberts. "Therefore, it led him to be very creative and a thoughtful individual at a young age."

Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy did not believe their second son was presidential material. It was their first-born son, Joe, Jr., who was the favored son. The family groomed him as a politician.

Sibling Rivalry

Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., and John F. Kennedy ride in an Express wooden coaster wagon outside the Kennedy family home on Beals Street in Brookline, Mass. (Courtesy JFK Library and Museum in Boston)
Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., and John F. Kennedy ride in an Express wooden coaster wagon outside the Kennedy family home on Beals Street in Brookline, Mass. (Courtesy JFK Library and Museum in Boston)

Boston University historian Thomas Whalen says Joe, Jr. didn't always get along with his younger brother.

"He was something of a bully," says Whalen. "And he would really pick on young Jack, who was noticeably physically weaker and smaller than his big, brawny brother.

"The famous story is they were both on tricycles going right at each other — playing basically a game of chicken — and poor Jack Kennedy, little Jack Kennedy, refused to give into his bigger, stronger brother, and he got the worst of the crash," Whalen added.

Their father encouraged the sibling rivalry. At the same time, political scientist Natoli says, Rose Kennedy nurtured faith and morals.

"When she’d be on her way home from the grocery store in the afternoons, she took the young ones to church, to St. Aidan’s just right down the street a bit, to make sure that they understood that church was not just for Sunday," she says. "The family dinners during the week revolved — on the weekdays revolved — around politics. But on Sundays, they revolved around the gospel."

Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., and John F. Kennedy (holding hands) wear matching coats and hats in Brookline, Massachusetts. (Courtesy JFK Library and Museum in Boston)
Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., and John F. Kennedy (holding hands) wear matching coats and hats in Brookline, Massachusetts. (Courtesy JFK Library and Museum in Boston)

In 1920, the Kennedy family moved to a larger Brookline home where Eunice, Patricia and Robert Kennedy were born. In 1927, they moved to the Bronx, convinced the Catholic children could advance there.

But Rose Kennedy cherished her Brookline memories.

"We were very happy here," an audio recording portraying Rose Kennedy's voice says at the Beals Street home. "And although we did not know about the days ahead, we were enthusiastic and optimistic about the future."

War would intervene. Joe, Jr., a Navy lieutenant, died in WWII.

JFK nearly died, but then embraced his new destiny.

"Jack Kennedy had his own plans. He wanted to be president himself, even at a young age," Whalen explains. "We now know that from letters he wrote as a young boy."

And that young boy — the frail, sickly dreamer from Brookline — became the favored son. And, the 35th president of the United States.

(Jesse Costa/WBUR)
(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This segment aired on May 25, 2017.

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