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Tuesday, December 28, 2021

JFK and My Grandmother

The official Presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy

The Official Presidential Portrait of John F. Kennedy

For as long as I can remember, there was an oil painting hanging at the top of the stairs at my Grandmothers house. It was of John F. Kennedy walking on the beach.

We were an Irish Catholic family, my grandmother the matriarch. We weren’t conservative Christians, in fact my grandmother never liked them – she felt uncomfortable when, in her 80’s, our small local church started to take a turn for the evangelical. The change started when our priest, Father Guckert started to fall ill. He would take a Sunday off, and one of the local up-and-coming priests would step in. They were conservative, preaching to the elderly choir – the members of the ‘Greatest Generation’ that didn’t like gay marriage, didn’t like birth control… my grandmother didn’t care for that.

She was the first donor to the Jamesville DeWitt High School Gay Straight Alliance, a group that I helped start. When President Bush sent a surplus check back to taxpayers, she took hers and donated it to Planned Parenthood and other groups that the Republican administration had cut funding to.

So, why am I rambling on about my grandmother? She was a fan of the Kennedys – not in the way that many people were, following the fashion and the gossip, but because of the politics. All of my childhood photos could easily be mistaken as something taken on the Kennedy compound. We vacationed in Cape Cod, visited Hyannis when we could, and I was given books on our favorite President as a child. But the biggest influence was our liberalism. My Grandmother came of age in a time when ‘liberalism’ was not a dirty word in the was that is now.

Liberalism gave us the New Deal.

Liberalism gave us Social Security.

Liberalism gave us the Works Progress Administration, and thus highways, power grids, and national parks.

Liberalism gave us an integrated military.

Liberalism gave us the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

We were a family of New Deal Catholics – and the Kennedys were our role models. And thus, we were a family of liberals. Kennedy was proud to be one. And so was his brother. Both fought as liberals, lived as liberals and died as liberals. Anyone ashamed to call themself a liberal should remember that.

My grandmother, Eileen Burke Reuter, and her daughter, Denise, were my political influencers – they fed me the books that I read, the films that influenced me, and handed me the first camera that I ever took photos with.

On my high school graduation they gave me a copy of President Kennedy’s book – Profiles In Courage. In it, I read these words.

“If by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal”, then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

I’m not sure how to remember the 50th anniversary of  the death our last liberal president. When I was in middle school I read the complete Warren Commission, and in high school I read every conspiracy book I could get my hands on. I must have watched Oliver Stone’s JFK 30 times on VHS. But now that I’ve spent a decade working in investigative journalism, and several years working alongside Robert F. Kennedy Jr., remembering this anniversary comes down to the oil painting hanging on my Grandmothers wall.

 

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Comments
7 Responses to “JFK and My Grandmother”
  1. sudsy says:

    Great article.

  2. AKblue says:

    Thanks for the wonderful tribute.

  3. mike from iowa says:

    So short a life,such an inspiration to so many. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZfRyWPZAII

  4. Ripley in CT says:

    What a great post, Zach. Your grandmother’s legacy lives on in you.

  5. Mike Gerber says:

    Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing this–very similar to my own background, and my family’s.

  6. Zyxomma says:

    One of the very first portraits I drew was of JFK. I was nine when he died, and it was traumatic. Thank you, Zach. Do you know who painted the portrait in your grandmother’s home?

    • Zach Roberts says:

      The one at my Grandmothers house was done by a Cape Cod painter whose name eludes me at the moment… I’ll try to find out.

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