by Kevin Gaughan
Early November 1963 was cold in Buffalo. Not one of our summer-like autumns, with soft air and sun, but days of dark clouds rolling off Lake Erie, biting wind, and freezing rain. On November 16, 1963, my father, Vincent Gaughan, Sr., navy blue overcoat draping his body, hugged my mother, kissed his seven children—pausing with my brother Vincent and me, ages 11 and 9, to review our chores one last time—and left our Hamburg home. He took the still-new State Thruway and brand-new Kensington Expressway to the Buffalo airport, and boarded a United Airlines flight to Texas. His friend, President John Kennedy, had once again asked for his help.
Since the 1960 presidential campaign, in which he’d served as an advance man, my father had retreated to family life, practicing law and pursuing business projects. He’d served a stint in 1962 as a special ambassador for Kennedy in a new African nation, consulted by phone regularly with his pals, aides Ted Sorensen and Dave Powers, and, along with my mother, Margaret, attended White House functions when the president extended kind invitations (usually sitting my dad at distant tables, and my mom next to prominent senators and Supreme Court justices). So it took several calls from White House chief of staff Ken O’Donnell—who many years later told me that my mother “was a fierce advocate for your father staying home”—to get my dad to agree to help launch Kennedy’s 1964 re-election campaign with a visit to Texas, and its rich store of electoral college votes.
As president of the Young Democrats of America in 1948, my father’s path briefly crossed with Kennedy at a Boston pol dinner of endless speeches, then-congressman Kennedy opening the program and my father closing it. Scooting off the platform, Kennedy leaned down and whispered to my dad, “The trick is to speak early and get out.” At the 1956 Chicago Democratic Convention, my father managed Kentucky Senator Estes Kefauver’s tussle with Kennedy on the convention floor, when nominee Adlai Stevenson let the delegates choose his vice-presidential running mate. Kefauver plucked the plum from Kennedy’s grasp, and the bright, Boston patrician struck a bond with the bright, Buffalo attorney who’d helped deny him something he wanted.
From the early days of the 1960 campaign when, to manufacture crowds, my father would slip into airport offices and persuade the intercom man to announce that “Senator Kennedy’s plane would arrive in 10 minutes at Gate 5,” through that November day he traveled to Texas, my father was a Kennedy man. He strategized at the 1960 Los Angeles convention, huddled in the Chicago studio at the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, celebrated in Hyannis on election night, and danced with my mother at the snowy, Washington inauguration. Woken mid-night by, to his Buffalo ears the familiar silent sound of falling snow, he wrote a poem—a meditation on the young people walking the capital streets that evening, envisioning what their lives would be like, and wondering who among them would occupy a future White House.
My father accompanied the president on his joyous trip to Ireland in June 1963, welcomed him to Buffalo on Pulaski Day, 1962 and, on the Fourth of July of that year, introduced his large brood of children to a bemused Kennedy as we all stood next to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.
Kennedy, a pragmatist disguised as a romantic, as writer Arthur Schlesinger once noted, shared little with my dad in terms of social background and economic standing. But in common were their restless minds, fierce intellects, and driven manner. They and their generation had endured Great Depression and World War. They’d seen American democracy bent low on its knees, and standing tall in the name of freedom. They had earned both their chance and their time as the 1960s dawned. And in the prime of their life, they set out to fashion a modern, peaceful world.
Through long talks I had some years ago with President Kennedy’s wife, mother, sisters, and brother, Ted (each of whom I knew through my time living with the family of my friend, Bobby Kennedy Jr.), my sense is that in my dad the president recognized a combination of business acumen and political feel. When I entered politics, my father said that he could never run for office. “But Daddy,” I said, “you advised presidents.” To which he smiled and responded, “That’s just sitting in a room and giving your opinion. That’s not standing in front of a crowd, claiming to know what’s right.”
Years after his Washington days ended, then a successful businessman, my father kept one enduring memory of his time with Kennedy. Along with Sorensen and press secretary Pierre Salinger, he had abruptly entered the Oval Office, catching Kennedy in thought. In subdued voice, less to anyone and more to himself, Kennedy said that he was thinking that at any moment someone would walk through the door and say, ”All right, pal, who do you think you’re fooling, you’re not supposed to be in here, so get going.” That sense of imperfect self, the “anxiety of influence,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson called it, is something I’ve tried to hold close throughout my small public life. And all these years later, when I think of the instances I saw my father and President Kennedy together, what abides is their beaming, self-deprecating smiles, as if they were somehow overtaken by the wonder of it all.
The original plan for Kennedy’s two-day Texas trip included visits to five cities—San Antonio, Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas and, finally, Austin—where he and his wife were to spend an evening with Vice President Lyndon Johnson. On November 16, my father flew from Buffalo to San Antonio, Texas, rented a car, and traveled some 30 minutes to Picosa Ranch, the sprawling, 543-acre home of Texas Governor John Connally (today, a hotel and resort). There he spent two days meeting with Texas businessmen, inquiring about their government and regulatory challenges, and broadly describing the administration’s outlook for a second term. He took notes, intended to serve as briefing documents for when Kennedy’s 1964 re-election campaign would begin soliciting donations from the Texas oil crowd.
On November 18, my father drove the 275 miles from San Antonio to Dallas, where, along with a Kennedy advance party of some 20 men (dwarfed by today’s practice of American presidents traveling with a city-sized coterie), he sketched out the president’s schedule from a planned morning arrival from Fort Worth, city-traversing motorcade, business community lunch, and flight on to Austin. Having done so countless times before, those deciding the motorcade route employed their usual care. Their sole concern was the turbulence surrounding a recent Dallas visit by Adlai Stevenson, and the palpable antipathy for Kennedy among a small group of far-right-wing ideologues. But they’d encountered that before.
Standing in the Kennedy team’s Dallas hotel one afternoon, straddling the doorway between the room in which workers were lunching and the corridor, my father saw Lyndon Johnson appear from a stairway door, head down the corridor, and furtively duck into an adjoining room. Surprised that he wasn’t advised that Johnson (for whom my father had little esteem) was participating in the pre-visit planning, my dad walked to the door and knocked several times. No one answered.
Over the years, as irresponsible conspiracy buffs looked to place responsibility for the Dallas tragedy on virtually any person, Johnson has not been spared. But in his magisterial Johnson biography, Robert Caro reveals that Vice President Johnson would often go off the grid, travel to Texas on a private plane without anyone’s knowledge, and conduct back channel politics as only he could. And in the case of Kennedy’s Texas visit—after all, Johnson’s home state—the Kennedy staff’s impolite ignoring of him was more than Johnson could bear. He went to Dallas to make sure his goals for the trip were achieved.
While performing his duties in Dallas, what often befalls northerners who leave cold temperatures for southern warmth, seized upon my father: a terrible flu. On Thursday, November 21, rather than adhere to his practice of staying on to participate in the president’s visit, my father returned home. I was playing at the bottom of our living room stairs as he arrived, pale and drawn, with double scarves around his neck and mouth, dragged himself up to his second-floor bedroom and closed the door. I didn’t see him again until the next day, Friday, November 22.
In my mind’s eye, it all happened quickly. The intercom announcement at Saint Mary of the Lake School, where I sat in my fourth grade classroom. My sister Colleen herding Vincent and me together, and our return to the shelter of home. Throughout our childhood, under our parents’ boundless protection, our home on Lake Erie was the safest of harbors. Just a year before, my father had built an addition to the house, including a large, second-story children’s playroom. Designed to give the impression we were sailing on a great boat, the room included a ship’s deck, captain’s wheel, nautical flags, porthole windows, and a captain’s quarters which served as my dad’s office. Adorning its walls were several life-preserver rings bearing the name of our family ship, the “S.S. Happiness.”
As we came through the front door, my mom, clearly stricken and speaking barely above a whisper, greeted us and quickly instructed my brother and me to “go upstairs and be with your father.” She cradled Colleen in her arms, hushing her mix of questions and tears as Vincent and I climbed the stairs, raced across the playroom, and entered my father’s office. At his desk, he sat motionless. Saying little, he hugged us both, and asked that we get our mother. When she came, I recall my father, seemingly bewildered, describing to her the difficulty he was having reaching any Kennedy friends by phone. My mother calmed him, sat him back down at his desk and, in firm yet soothing voice, told my dad to keep trying and he’d get through. Here was a man to whom a president had looked for advice. But as it was throughout their marriage, whenever my father felt lost, as he so desperately did in that moment, she was the only one who could guide him back.
My older sister Judy arrived next, from Hamburg’s Immaculata Academy. Rounding the kitchen corner and running for my father, my mother intercepted her as Judy collapsed into soft sobs. Watching her cry, it seemed that somehow the room tilted. I felt unbalanced, unsure of what was happening. It was like the pressure you feel from a head cold, shifting your internal gyroscope and rendering you dizzy and nauseous. I looked to Vincent for explanation. His return glance revealed that he was hurting even worse than me.
The afternoon drew painfully on. Our oldest sister, Karen—always for us children our leader, and now in her final year of high school—took charge. Virtually a third parent in our family dynamic, she spent much of that day in the bedroom of our sister Shannon, aged four, and Patricia, a two-year old infant. Realizing that our parents needed time alone, she suggested that an uncle take us out to dinner, a meal of which I have no memory. But I recall wanting desperately to get back home. Fidgeting throughout, I finally bolted the restaurant and ran into the night. And for the first time in my young life, I noticed darkness. I was certainly acquainted with evening before, but my parent’s lightness and love had drained it of any foreboding. Suddenly now, darkness felt unwelcoming. Uncharted. And alone.
Pleading with our uncle to bring us home, he finally did, and as the car pulled up I couldn’t get out fast enough. I ran through the breezeway, into the kitchen, and around the corner leading to our living room. And there I saw something I’d never seen before. My father, hunched over in his chair, weeping. Across the room stood my mother. She looked at me, back at my dad, and darted across the room. Pulling on one of his arms with one hand, and lifting his face with her other, she told my father that he couldn’t cry in front of his son. In an instant, his demeanor and posture changed. He came over to me and my brother and sisters, now all piling into the house, and suggested we sit and talk. I didn’t understand much of the conversation, but I remember feeling the comfort of our togetherness.
Before bed, we gathered on the deck of the children’s playroom. With Karen holding Patricia in her arms, and my parents flanking either side of their seven children, we knelt and prayed. We said the Catholic, rosary which, unlike any time I’d prayed it before, I wished would not end. That night, as Karen remembers, the wind off the lake shook our house until the early hours of dawn.
Much of that Saturday my father spent in his office, either on the telephone or speaking quietly with my mom. Years later, she told me he was trying to persuade her to accompany him to the president’s funeral Mass and burial on Monday. She couldn’t bring herself to go.
On Sunday afternoon, November 24, my father flew from Buffalo to Washington National Airport. He took a taxi to Capitol Hill, where the president’s casket lay in state in the Rotunda. He arrived during a brief period in which, after a morning ceremony, the room was closed. Two Secret Service men, to whom my father had always been kind, permitted him to view the casket alone, with only the four military honor guards standing sentry. I never asked my father what his thoughts were in that moment.
That Monday, along with the rest of America, we gathered around the television and participated in our nation’s first-ever shared, silent prayer. At times we glimpsed our father walking in the procession. That night, when he called, he described the day as “painfully beautiful,” and said when he passed Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie and French president Charles de Gaulle, resplendent in military garb festooned with ribbons and medals, they “looked like a couple of Christmas trees.”
The bullets that left the sixth floor of the Dallas book depository at lunchtime on November 22, 1963 pierced the remaining years of that decade, and shot through American life for many years more, breaking hearts and shattering souls. In some ways, those bullets still travel across time and space today. And the true measure of the damage they inflicted may never be fully assessed.
Robert Kennedy, himself to be tragically taken in the course of his public service, once noted that on that November 1963 day his brother the president was killed, their maternal grandmother was alive. She was 101 years old. In April 1865, on day that Abraham Lincoln died, she was a two-year old infant.
At some point in our lives, events, time,s and people pass from memory to history. Certainly the times that my mother and father inhabited have already approached that transformative moment. But for my brother and sisters and I, the memories of our parents—their love of life, and their larger-than-life presence—shall always be vivid and strong. And, as a result, will always remain memories.
In 1963, my father was 44 years old. John Kennedy was 46. In the aftermath of the president’s death, one of his close friends said, “We’ll never laugh again.” To which an aide at the time, Patrick Moynihan, replied, “We’ll laugh again, but we’ll never be young again.”
When my father returned home from burying his friend that November 1963, ahead of him lay a full, enriching, successful life, in which he laughed without limit, and loved and nurtured his family without end. But he was never young again.
Kevin Gaughan is a Buffalo attorney and civic leader. He is grateful to the John F. Kennedy Library and its staff for its kind assistance in preparing this article, which is excerpted from his book, Ideas, Wonder, and Possibilities, to be published in spring 2014.
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