Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

November 22, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Some days, Kennedy still feels very alive

Fifty years ago, Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley was taking his usual Friday afternoon swim in a YMCA pool in downtown Lansing. Suddenly, he looked up.

Leon Cohan, his deputy, was walked towards him, wearing a winter coat and a stricken expression. “My first thought was that something had happened to one of my kids,” Mr. Kelley said.

“Frank, the President has been shot. It’s on the radio,” his assistant said. The attorney general was stunned.

“I was numb.” He dressed hurriedly, got back to the office, only to be met by his secretary, tears streaming down her face.

The Department of Justice had just called.

President Kennedy was dead.

“For the next few days, I was in a fog,” said Kelley, now 88 but still mentally sharp. “He was the most charismatic politician I had ever met, and have ever met, a true Irish prince.”

Half a century after the assassination, there are still many people who remember seeing or meeting John F. Kennedy.

But unlike most, Frank Kelley once spent nearly an hour alone with him, in a hotel suite in Detroit. President Kennedy had come to Michigan in October, 1962, in an effort to boost the chances of then-Gov. John Swainson, who was running against George Romney.

Kelley, who had been appointed to his job less than a year before, was also trying to be elected attorney general in his own right. After a morning spent campaigning, the governor, who had lost both legs in World War II, needed to take a nap. So the young attorney general and the president were alone. Like JFK, Frank Kelley was Irish and a Roman Catholic.

“But there was a big difference. I had managed to make it into the middle class. But the Kennedys were royalty, and I immediately saw that everything I had ever heard about JFK was true. He had all the graceful bearing you’d expect of a prince, from his casual yet perfectly tailored Savile Row suit to his clearly custom-made shoes.

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