BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS — Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was a very disciplined and organized woman, made the following entry on a notecard, when her second child was born:
“John Fitzgerald Kennedy — Born Brookline, Mass. (83 Beals Street) May 29, 1917”
In all, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy would have nine children, four boys and five girls. She kept notecards for each of them in a small wooden file box and made a point of writing down everything from a doctor’s visit to the shoe size they had at a particular age. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was named in honor of Rose’s father, John Francis Fitzgerald, the Boston Mayor popularly known as Honey Fitz. Before long, family and friends called this small blue-eyed baby, Jack. Jack was not a very healthy baby, and Rose recorded on his notecard the childhood diseases from which he suffered, such as: “whooping cough, measles, chicken pox.”
On February 20, 1920 when Jack was not yet three years old, he became sick with scarlet fever, a highly contagious and then potentially life-threatening disease. His father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, was terrified that little Jack would die. Mr. Kennedy went to the hospital every day to be by his son’s side, and about a month later Jack took a turn for the better and recovered. But Jack was never very healthy, and because he was always suffering from one ailment or another his family used to joke about the great risk a mosquito took in biting him – with some of his blood the mosquito was almost sure to die!
When Jack was three, the Kennedys moved to a new home a few blocks away from their old house in Brookline, a neighborhood just outside of Boston. It was a lovely house with twelve rooms, turreted windows, and a big porch. Full of energy and ambition, Jack’s father worked very hard at becoming a successful businessman. When he was a student at Harvard College and having a difficult time fitting in as an Irish Catholic, he swore to himself he would make a million dollars by the age of 35. There was a lot of prejudice against Irish Catholics in Boston at that time, but Joseph Kennedy was determined to succeed. Jack’s great-grandparents had come from Ireland and managed to provide for their families, despite many hardships. Jack’s grandfathers did even better for themselves, both becoming prominent Boston politicians. Jack, because of all his family had done, could enjoy a very comfortable life. The Kennedys had everything they needed and more. By the time Jack was eight there were seven children altogether. Jack had an older brother, Joe; four sisters, Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, and Patricia; and a younger brother, Robert. Jean and Teddy hadn’t been born yet. Nannies and housekeepers helped Rose run the household.
At the end of the school year, the Kennedy children would go to their summer home in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod where they enjoyed swimming, sailing, and playing touch football. The Kennedy children played hard, and they enjoyed competing with one another. Joseph Sr. encouraged this competition, especially among the boys. He was a father with very high expectations and wanted the boys to win at sports and everything they tried. As he often said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” But sometimes these competitions went too far. One time when Joe suggested that he and Jack race on their bicycles, they collided head-on. Joe emerged unscathed while Jack had to have twenty-eight stitches. Because Joe was two years older and stronger than Jack, whenever they fought, Jack would usually get the worst of it. Jack was the only sibling who posed any real threat to Joe’s dominant position as the oldest child.
Jack graduated from Choate and entered Harvard in 1936, where Joe was already a student. Like his brother Joe, Jack played football. He was not as good an athlete as Joe but he had a lot of determination and perseverance. Unfortunately, one day while playing he ruptured a disk in his spine. Jack never really recovered from this accident and his back continued to bother him for the rest of his life.
The two eldest boys were attractive, agreeable, and intelligent young men and Mr. Kennedy had high hopes for them both. However, it was Joe who had announced to everyone when he was a young boy that he would be the first Catholic to become President. No one doubted him for a moment. Jack, on the other hand, seemed somewhat less ambitious. He was active in student groups and sports and he worked hard in his history and government classes, though his grades remained only average. Late in 1937, Mr. Kennedy was appointed United States Ambassador to England and moved there with his whole family, with the exception of Joe and Jack who were at Harvard. Because of his father’s job, Jack became very interested in European politics and world affairs. After a summer visit to England and other countries in Europe, Jack returned to Harvard more eager to learn about history and government and to keep up with current events.
Joe and Jack frequently received letters from their father in England, who informed them of the latest news regarding the conflicts and tensions that everyone feared would soon blow up into a full-scale war. Adolph Hitler ruled Germany and Benito Mussolini ruled Italy. They both had strong armies and wanted to take land from other countries. On September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland and World War II began.
By this time, Jack was a senior at Harvard and decided to write his thesis on why Great Britain was unprepared for war with Germany. It was later published as a book called Why England Slept. In June 1940, Jack graduated from Harvard. His father sent him a cablegram from London: “TWO THINGS I ALWAYS KNEW ABOUT YOU ONE THAT YOU ARE SMART TWO THAT YOU ARE A SWELL GUY LOVE DAD.”
Soon after graduating, both Joe and Jack joined the Navy. Joe was a flyer and sent to Europe, while Jack was made Lieutenant (Lt.) and assigned to the South Pacific as commander of a patrol torpedo boat, the PT-109. Lt. Kennedy had a crew of twelve men whose mission was to stop Japanese ships from delivering supplies to their soldiers. On the night of August 2, 1943, Lt. Kennedy’s crew patrolled the waters looking for enemy ships to sink. A Japanese destroyer suddenly became visible. But it was traveling at full speed and headed straight at them. Holding the wheel, Lt. Kennedy tried to swerve out of the way, but to no avail. The much larger Japanese warship rammed the PT-109, splitting it in half and killing two of Lt. Kennedy’s men. The others managed to jump off as their boat went up in flames. Lt. Kennedy was slammed hard against the cockpit, once again injuring his weak back. Patrick McMahon, one of his crew members, had horrible burns on his face and hands and was ready to give up. In the darkness, Lt. Kennedy managed to find McMahon and haul him back to where the other survivors were clinging to a piece of the boat that was still afloat. At sunrise, Lt. Kennedy led his men toward a small island several miles away. Despite his own injuries, Lt. Kennedy was able to tow Patrick McMahon ashore, a strap from McMahon’s life jacket clenched between his teeth. Six days later two native islanders found them and went for help, delivering a message Jack had carved into a piece of coconut shell. The next day, the PT-109 crew was rescued. Jack’s brother Joe was not so lucky. He died a year later when his plane blew up during a dangerous mission in Europe.
When he returned home, Jack was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his leadership and courage. With the war finally coming to an end, it was time to choose the kind of work he wanted to do. Jack had considered becoming a teacher or a writer, but with Joe’s tragic death suddenly everything changed. After serious discussions with Jack about his future, Joseph Kennedy convinced him that he should run for Congress in Massachusetts’ eleventh congressional district, where he won in 1946. This was the beginning of Jack’s political career. As the years went on, John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, served three terms (six years) in the House of Representatives, and in 1952 he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Soon after being elected senator, John F. Kennedy, at 36 years of age, married 24 year-old Jacqueline Bouvier, a writer with the Washington Times-Herald. Unfortunately, early on in their marriage, Senator Kennedy’s back started to hurt again and he had two serious operations. While recovering from surgery, he wrote a book about several U.S. Senators who had risked their careers to fight for the things in which they believed. The book, called Profiles in Courage, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957. That same year, the Kennedys’ first child, Caroline, was born.
John F. Kennedy was becoming a popular politician. In 1956 he was almost picked to run for Vice President. Kennedy nonetheless decided that he would run for President in the next election. He began working very long hours and traveling all around the United States on weekends. On July 13, 1960 the Democratic party nominated him as its candidate for President. Kennedy asked Lyndon B. Johnson, a senator from Texas, to run with him as Vice President. In the general election on November 8, 1960, Kennedy defeated the Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon in a very close race. At the age of 43, Kennedy was the youngest man elected President and the first Catholic. Before his inauguration, his second child, John Jr., was born. His father liked to call him John-John. (Pictures & Article courtesy of the JFK Library in Boston, Massachusetts.)