My mom was one month pregnant with me when she accompanied her older brother Jack to the home country, the Republic of Ireland. Jackie Kennedy was under doctor’s orders not to go on the trip with her husband. She, too, was pregnant but had been put on bed rest. Mom didn’t tell anyone that she was pregnant, for fear of missing the trip of a lifetime—the first Irish Catholic president visiting the family homeland, and Mom playing the role of First Lady! Nothing was going to hold her back from going to Ireland. The crowds were raucous everywhere they went—as if a long-suffering people had shed the curse of centuries of poverty to occupy the White House right along with Ireland’s most famous export.
But the joy felt on this trip would not last long—just two months later, the First Family’s two-day-old-son, Patrick, died. Ireland and America grieved. I obviously had no idea of the additional drama I was soon to be born into. Surely a magical realist writer like Gabriel García Márquez could have plumbed the narrative possibility of telling the story of Jack’s assassination from the perspective of a baby inside the womb of the dead president’s sister. The details I would have witnessed from that privileged perch: On Friday, November 22, Mom called Dad from the obstetrician’s office to see if he could sneak out of the Peace Corps office for lunch with her and my soon-to-be older brother Timmy. They waited for him at a table in the dining room at the Hotel Lafayette. She was pregnant at age forty-two, but with her strong jawline and no wrinkles, she looked thirty and had the energy of a twenty-something. She would go on to have my brother Anthony at forty-four, and she dared, contrary to the tenets of medicine and the culture, to get pregnant again at forty-six, albeit losing the baby in a miscarriage.
No doubt she was happy that day, doubly so as Dad entered the room and smiled at her because he already knew the appointment had gone well. They didn’t know yet that a boy would follow Bobby, Maria, and Timmy—they waited for that to reveal itself the old-fashioned way. After a little while, the waiter came over to the table and told Dad that he had an urgent call from his assistant.
As Dad walked back to the table, Mom, I assume, could detect the change in his demeanor. He surely wasn’t smiling; I suppose he was staring at her, studying her, and that his whole gait and facial expression had grown grave.
He sat down, and must have run through the consequences of what he was about to tell her: How would it affect the health of a woman whose beloved father had had a debilitating stroke? Whose oldest brother, Joe, had been killed in World War II when his plane exploded over England on a secret mission? Whose older sister had died in an airplane crash in France shortly after the war? How would the news affect the health of that baby—me—whom he saw as a sacred gift from God? He surely collected himself, soothing her eyes with his. He spoke softly and assuredly, somehow making slightly bearable the incomprehensible news that her brother had been shot.
They left the restaurant and headed to the Peace Corps building, where a wire flash announced that Jack had died. Mom and Dad and a few Peace Corps staffers knelt and prayed in Dad’s office. More reports poured in, confirming the news. Dad called a quick staff meeting and decided to send a wire to Peace Corps staff around the world, informing them of what had happened and reassuring them that the Peace Corps would continue its work.
Dad asked his assistant, Mary Ann Orlando, to take Timmy and gather my other future siblings together at our home in Rockville, while Mom and he went to the White House. There they met with both Uncle Bobby and Uncle Teddy and decided that Mom and Teddy would go to Massachusetts to be with their mother and father, and Bobby would go to Andrews Air Force Base, in Maryland, to meet the arrival of Air Force One. Dad was ostensibly in charge at the White House. Hours later, Jackie Kennedy sent word that she wanted Dad to lead the planning of the funeral.
Soon after that, he learned that the mutual disdain between Bobby and the new president, Lyndon Johnson, threatened the smoothness of the transition and the basic functioning of the government. And he, a soon-to-be father whose greatest preoccupation had been the health of his wife, was one of the few people who could bridge the gap and help the stunned country maintain its footing.
For the next few days he slept just an hour a night; he stopped working only to make his frequent calls to Mom to bolster her. He grasped the national craving for a funeral unlike any other—stately yet healing, official yet personal.
Were García Márquez telling the story, he would have shown how a steady father began to radiate his faith and hope and love to his unborn son, sparking my lifelong devotion to him.
Fiction aside, I firmly believe that Dad’s faith in God gave him the strength and the discipline to orchestrate the funeral events—at times grisly, at times heartbreaking, by turns wrapped in ambition, intrigue, chaos, pathos, and raw grief. Jackie had requested that Uncle Jack lie in state in the East Room of the White House, as had President Lincoln, and that the room be made over to look as it had then. Dad immediately called upon Jack’s favorite artist, Bill Walton, to handle this assignment. Together they decided that to replicate exactly the appearance of the White House after President Lincoln’s death, as requested, was impossible because of the physical changes inside the building since then. They did, however, drape black crepe over much of the East Room. Since the White House had no exterior lighting, Dad worked through the night to arrange for hand-lit torches to line the driveway. At three-thirty on Saturday morning, the Washington highway department delivered the torches, creating a scene that was seared in the nation’s memory.
At just that time, Dad realized that there were no military personnel at the White House to form an honor guard that would act as an escort for Uncle Jack’s arrival. Dad told a White House aide to call the Marine barracks in D.C. and ask for twelve to twenty-four men in full dress uniform. Within twenty minutes, twelve men from the Marine Silent Drill Platoon had been roused out of the barracks and, in full dress uniform, appeared at the White House.
When Jackie and the coffin arrived just a few minutes later, at four-thirty a.m., Dad stood at the doorway to greet her and direct the military pallbearers. There were countless other decisions to be made, some immediately but all within the incredibly short time frame of three days: whom to invite to the funeral and where, mindful of protocol, to seat each person; where President Kennedy should be buried, and whether he should lie in state in an open or a closed casket.
Dad worked with Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston and Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington, D.C., to iron out the details of the funeral Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. The church leaders wanted a High Mass, but Dad convinced them that the less formal Low Mass was more appropriate, because that was the ceremony President Kennedy had preferred. On the day of the funeral, the White House was jammed with heads of state who had flown in from all over the world on just a few hours’ notice. According to Dad’s former colleague Dr. Joe English, It was the largest gathering of heads of state ever, and Angie Duke, the chief of protocol at the State Department, asked Sarge to greet them.
Sarge said yes, and then he asked me to grab a box of Mass cards. I got one just before they were taken to St. Matthew’s Cathedral for the funeral Mass. I gave them to Sarge. The first person he greeted was Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, who was just over five feet tall. Selassie was crying when your dad handed him the card and said, “Your Majesty, I want this card to be a memorial of President Kennedy, who loved your country very much.” Selassie said to him, “President Kennedy needs no memorial in our country because he has three hundred of his children working there today,” a reference to the Peace Corps volunteers. Then your dad gave a card to French president Charles de Gaulle, was who six-five. The contrast between the two men—it was a surreal moment. Sarge went through the entire room shaking hands and saying a word or two to every leader, and every one of them was crying.
Throughout the ordeal, Dad was one of the few “Kennedy insiders” who maintained a working relationship with President Johnson and his advisers. During those tense days between the assassination and the funeral, Dad had to walk a tightrope between the grieving Kennedy family and the new president over issues of significant importance to the nation. When would Johnson make his first televised address to the country? When would he assume his place in the Oval Office? What Cabinet changes might he make? Overhanging it all was the tension between President Johnson and Bobby. Indeed, Dad, while planning the funeral, met regularly with Johnson to urge him not to let paranoia and personal animosity interfere with appropriate mourning and a proper transition.
Dad’s steadfastness, almost otherworldly, enabled him to command the attention of the grief-stricken, the power- hungry, and the anxiety-ridden alike. As we were arranging for Dad’s funeral, decades later, I heard about how masterfully he’d orchestrated my uncle’s. I stayed up late the night after he died, plowing through files and scrapbooks, and I came across a photograph of the pro- cession the day of Jack’s funeral. Dad walked behind Jackie, as had been planned. Few cameras noticed him, but his gaze conveyed an assuredness and direction, a resolution, that almost no one else in the crowd had. In an article written for True magazine months after the assassination, Robert Liston aptly captured Dad’s central role in managing the myriad logistics behind Jack’s funeral: This scene, and those brutally emotional ones which pinned the world to its television sets for the next three days, came more out of Shriver than out of anyone else. Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes were dominant, but it was he who translated them into the multiplicity of details which lent majesty to the national tragedy and moved a nation to tears.
He was, at times, the dynamic executive, forgetting personal feelings to get a tough job done well—and going without sleep and food in the process. He was the man of seemingly endless energy, still running strong when younger men were ready to drop. He was the aesthetic man of taste and sensitivity, the proper greeter of dignitaries at the White House and the family man in step behind Jacqueline Kennedy on her mournful march to her husband’s funeral.
I am certain that Dad’s central focus was not creating a majestic national funeral as much as it was instilling the faithfulness and the peacefulness of an eternal homecoming for the assassinated president. He was accompanying a president to be buried but, more important, he was hastening the soul of a loved one on the way to meet his Maker and know everlasting life. That is a big supposition, but understanding the depth of Dad’s faith now, I know that a proper funeral—a sacred ceremony—was foremost on his mind that day. From addressing the rumored threat of another assassination to satisfying a nation’s craving for solemn pageantry, from consoling a grieving widow to calming his grief-stricken, pregnant wife, from balancing a functioning government to honoring a dead man and his empty office, he fulfilled all his tasks with such grace because they were, simply, secondary. They were the things of this world—duties to be completed and completed well. But he wanted first and foremost to ensure a proper Catholic burial for the first Catholic president of the United States. Proper passage to life with God was what his dead brother-in-law most deserved.
He enacted his faith on that first night. He wanted a crucifix to be placed on the coffin, but the only options found that late on a Friday were inappropriately elaborate. Instead, he sent a car to retrieve the simple crucifix from above his bed so that it could be laid, on the President’s casket. He removed it on the morning of the funeral. A few months later, sent by President Johnson to meet the pope, he took the crucifix down from his wall again and carried it to Rome to be blessed. A few days later, he asked the head of the Greek Orthodox Church to bless it. That crucifix hung over his bed for years, until he encased it in a concrete cross that now stands over his parents’ grave site in Westminster, Maryland.
We are all born into a web of relationships and circumstances, tragedies and opportunities. As I was coming into this world, my family lived through parades in Ireland one day and a funeral procession soon after. We never get to choose. My life in a famous and often star-crossed American clan would not be without its trials and disappointments, but I had as my father a man who not only was faith-filled and disciplined but who also insisted, in large part because of his faith, on the grace and joy in life. He possessed, and insisted on to me and his family and friends, a sustaining and empowering awareness of God’s active grace in the world. When I was a young boy, that quality in him saved me from hopelessness; as I became an adult, it slowly shaped my vision for how to live, especially once I had to undertake the stern stuff of living without him.