As the nation on Monday — fittingly enough Memorial Day — marks the 100th birthday of one of our most admired 20th century icons, it’s an occasion to be reminded of some of the ways Maine placed its imprint on his legacy. It’s in our own state, for example, where his parents both met and pursued their courtship.

As family matriarch Rose Kennedy once recalled, “I shall always remember Old Orchard as a place of magic, for it was where Joe and I fell in love.”

A few years later it was in Maine, that Joseph Kennedy first gained a foothold in the business which would secure his first great fortune. It was here, in 1919, through Lewiston’s William Gray, that Kennedy purchased a controlling interest in the 31-chain Maine-New Hampshire Theatres Company. It was a venture that would eventually prompt Kennedy to transfer his focus to Hollywood itself where he became one of the nation’s leading cinema titans in the late 1920’s.

Maine’s second-largest city also played a role in the early life of the Kennedy brother who would one day become JFK’s leading personal protégé and political partner. For it was in Lewiston that Robert Kennedy would spend the entire winter of 1944-45 at Bates College, attending a Naval officers candidate school. Ever part of family of dedicated athletes, the 19-year old also was allowed to join the college ski team – then headed up by Bates’ long time legendary coach C. Ray Thompson – even though Robert was not an official Bates student.

Thompson later recalled that “Bobby was as good as any of his team mates,” and that he was “obedient to orders, willing, good natured, modest, and not inclined in any way to throw his weight around.”

A decade later JFK himself – by then a recently minted U.S. Senator from Massachusetts – made his Maine political debut. This he did by campaigning on behalf of the 1954 slate of Democratic candidates. This included a stop at a Portland TV studio in this, the first election after the state’s first TV stations had gone on the air, thus foreshadowing the important role the medium would play in his own future. Kennedy became part of a campaign that would herald the upset election of fellow Democrat Edmund Muskie to the Blaine House.

Kennedy continued to bond with Maine Democrats throughout the rest of the decade, particularly in the run-up to his capturing the 1960 Presidential nomination. A united Maine party leadership delivered its full support to JFK at the Los Angeles convention in July.

After the nomination, Maine was both the first as well as one of the last of JFK’s days on the campaign trail. The Friday morning before Labor Day weekend turned out crowds of 10,000 to cheer him on in Presque Isle, 5,000 that afternoon at the Bangor State Fairgrounds followed by another 6,500 that evening at what’s now Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland .

One of Kennedy’s most commemorated associations with Maine was his appearance at City Park — now named Kennedy Park — in Lewiston, one of the final campaign stops in November before his razor-edged election as president in 1960.

Greeting Kennedy on his late-evening arrival and giving him the keys to the city was a figure who would become almost as storied in Lewiston as Kennedy would become in the nation. This was 35-year-old Mayor Emile “Bill” Jacques, then near the beginning of what eventually would become more than a half-century in public office at nearly every level of government. Jacques, who when not engaged in public service also found time to win a Canadian National title as a professional motorcycle racer before settling down to run a TV repair business.

The ebullient former state senator and county commissioner sat down with this columnist before his death five years ago to describe the unfolding drama that accompanied the future president’s visit to the twin cities. According to Jacques, the Kennedy campaign was at first scheduled only to appear at the Auburn Airport. Jacques then protested to party chair Al Lessard that Lewiston, the state’s Democratic stronghold, would be a more appropriate staging area than Auburn, which was then Republican, even though the trip to and from the airport would extend Kennedy’s travel time by at least 45 minutes.

The night of the future president’s visit — the Sunday before the Tuesday Nov. 8 voting — was rife with some suspense as to whether Kennedy would ever make it to his Twin Cities’ engagement. That’s because his scheduled 8 p.m. arrival was delayed nearly four hours by a variety of campaign events elsewhere that had included mobs of supporters who had besieged his entourage earlier in the evening in New Jersey, this on a chilly weekend that also in the Lewiston area had been attended by some of the first snow flakes of the season.

The early-evening crowd of 14,000 thus began to dwindle as the night wore on. I’ll personally remember sharing the anticipations of those there at that time but being disappointed that my childhood bedtime curfew precluded me from remaining long enough to see Kennedy speak.

Near midnight, however, before the 8,000 remaining supporters who had braved the long, cold wait, Mayor Jacques was able to thrust the keys to the city into Kennedy’s hands.

Apologizing for the late arrival, Kennedy assured his supporters that “he was not playing golf,“ a thinly veiled allusion to the Republican Eisenhower administration that he had held up to ridicule for spending too much time on the links.

Though according to Edward Schlick’s Lewiston Daily Sun report in Monday’s paper, Kennedy “appeared tired,” he then proceeded to deliver some of the major tenets of his campaign, contrasting his own vision with that of his opponent, Eisenhaur’s vice president, Richard Nixon.

“If you are confident that enough is being done, if you are satisfied, Nixon is the man. If you hold my views that in the ’60s the United States has to move ahead …then I ask your support.”

As president, the Vacationland state remained a familiar backdrop. One weekend in August 1962, for example, Kennedy spent on the Maine coast based at the summer home of former boxing champion Gene Tunney near Pemaquid. During that visit he also took in Mass at a Boothbay Harbor church and delivered a speech at the Summer Navy Festival at Brunswick Naval Air Station.

Kennedy’s last trip to Maine was the third Saturday in October, 1963, less than five weeks before his untimely death. It was then that Kennedy came to the University of Maine where he was awarded the next-to-the-last honorary degree of his lifetime. (The last was a week later at Amherst College.) At Orono, he delivered a foreign policy address calling for an above-ground ban on nuclear weapons testing. On the flight back to Washington, accompanied by Maine Senators Muskie and Margaret Chase Smith, Kennedy flew over remote areas of Washington County to view the St. Croix and Passamaquoddy Bay areas, which he then had under consideration for a federal tidal power project, in effect a Tennessee Valley of the North.

This aerial view of one of Maine’s most beleaguered regions was among the last Kennedy would have of our state. It would not by any means, however, spell the departure of the grip of his charismatic legacy. It is of course one that not only continues to this day but will likely endure for another century well beyond the confines of Old Orchard, Orono, Passamaquoddy Bay and Lewiston.

 Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

 


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