It is difficult to believe that it has been fifty-five years since that fateful day in Dallas, Texas, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. On this Thanksgiving Day, I reflect on this great man.
I never had the honor of meeting President Kennedy. By the time I was born, my father had been transferred from the White House Detail (presidential protection) to the vice presidential protective detail. Although, intermittently, he still served on the presidential detail when needed.
My brother, Mark, however, did meet President Kennedy—a memory he cherishes to this day.
Mark shared his childhood impression of the president with me stating, “He had more hair than I had ever seen on a man.” We both laughed, then Mark said, “But seriously, he was a wonderful person.”
Mark Youngblood, Vienna, VA, Spring 1962, RWY Collection.
Mark met President Kennedy during the summer of 1962 when Mark was almost twelve-years-old. He had ridden to the capital with our father from our home in Vienna, Virginia, to explore the Smithsonian museums while our father was at work. That evening, Mark had walked to the Executive Office to meet our father for the return trip home. As they were leaving, our father received a call that he was needed at the Mayflower Hotel where President Kennedy was scheduled to address a group.
Mark accompanied our father to the hotel. Dad stationed him just inside the ballroom where the president was to speak giving Mark the mandate to be “still and quiet.” Standing against the wall near the entrance, Mark attempted to be incognito—as a good agent would be.
However, he would not go unnoticed. When the president walked into the room, he spied the boy standing to his left and, instead of proceeding to the podium, he paused to greet him. Agent Lem Johns, who had accompanied the president, promptly introduced the two saying, “Mr. President, this is Agent Youngblood’s son, Mark.”
Flashing his charismatic smile, President Kennedy politely said, “Nice to meet you, Mark. I think very highly of your father.” Then with a nod, he strolled to the podium as his audience eagerly awaited.
President Kennedy’s politeness towards my brother and his kind words about our father are in keeping with accounts of the president’s character as described by other Secret Service agents. In his book, The Kennedy Detail, former Agent Jerry Blaine documents several examples of President Kennedy’s friendly rapport with his agents. Blaine reveals how the president made it a point to learn the agents’ names and often joked with them. Blaine also cites an occasion when a concerned President-elect Kennedy provided several of his own short-sleeved shirts to his wool-suited agents (unexpectantly transferred from a colder climate) who were standing guard in the sweltering Florida sun.
My father shared his high regard for the president in an interview with the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. My father said of President Kennedy, “I think he was the epitome of charisma. I don’t believe we used that word very much back in those days, but I think that if anybody had it, he had it. He was energetic, and it was a pleasure to work around him.”
The assassination of President Kennedy deeply saddened my father. Throughout that dreadful day in Dallas—from shielding Vice President Johnson in the motorcade, to waiting in vigil at Parkland Hospital, and traveling back to Washington on Air Force One —my father had maintained his composure and professionalism. When he, at last, arrived home to my mother, he let his guard down and cried. My mother later confided to me that she had never seen him so upset.
The tragic death of this young president affected millions of people across the world. My siblings recall the utter sadness of the funeral procession. With other mourners, we stood in the cold with our mother near the White House driveway as the horse-drawn caisson bearing the president’s casket rolled by. The forlorn shrill of the bagpipes blended with the clatter of horses’ hooves. Then the procession led by Jackie Kennedy followed, and our stoic-looking father, assigned to protect President Johnson, walked past us.
Now, fifty-five years later, this tragic day, November 22, falls on Thanksgiving Day. As I reflect on the life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, images of the eloquent president with his beautiful family and of the commander-in-chief flanked by happy children come to mind. I envision the man with that pleasant smile and intelligent sense of humor who was so friendly to my brother and polite to his Secret Service agents, and who was respected and loved by so many.
May he rest in peace.
Gary Goettling, Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine, Spring 1992.
Blaine, Gerald and Lisa McCubbin, The Kennedy Detail: JFK’s Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence, New York: Gallery Books, 2010.