Mary Fritz was 20 years old, working at Girl Scout camp in New Hampshire during the summer of 1958, when she received a letter from John F. Kennedy.
The future president, then a Massachusetts senator, was responding to Fritz’s request that he attend a tea at Emmanuel College that year, something he’d done in previous years.
Fritz still has the letter, now framed, where Kennedy explains he has to work on important legislation in Washington and won’t be able to visit her college. The typed letter on U.S. Senate letterhead includes Kennedy’s signature.
“I certainly appreciate your writing me and I would like very much to be with you; but after some deliberation I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that I cannot accept your very generous invitation,” Kennedy wrote. “In view of all the important legislation which will be up for consideration in the Senate next year, I feel that I should concentrate my efforts on my responsibilities here in Washington.”
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. While most remember the day of Kennedy’s death many also remember him as an inspiration.
In 1963 Fritz was a teacher at Moran Middle School in Wallingford and was called aside by the principal who broke the news to her.
“All the teachers knew I was a big Kennedy fan because I was from Cambridge, Massachusetts,” Fritz said. “He was my congressman and then my senator.”
“It was like your heart fell,” she said.
Fritz, a Democratic state representative, grew up in politically minded Irish-American circles. She said her mother often had tea with Rose Kennedy and that twice she attended tea with John F. Kennedy at Emmanuel College.
“He was a regular person, he wasn’t removed from any of us,” the Wallingford resident said. “There was nothing stand-offish or distant about him.”
She found his campaign positive and nearly joined the Peace Corps although she ultimately decided to remain a teacher.
Wallingford resident Robert Charles credits Kennedy with motivating thousands of young people to serve overseas with the Peace Corps.
“Nobody believed a bunch of college students could do anything but have a good time,” Charles said.“He had to put a lot of his political capital to work to get it through Congress.”
Charles joined the Peace Corps in 1967 after serving in the Army. He worked in Thailand and was appointed director of volunteers in that country in 1981. The Peace Corps worked on agricultural education, including raising chickens, which is now a major industry in Thailand.
“The legacy of the Peace Corps, the enthusiasm, you had to live in a country where the Peace Corps volunteers were as loved as they were in Thailand,” Charles said.
Kennedy motivated the volunteers. Charles cited the president’s inaugural speech in 1961 where Kennedy said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
“That speech was played many years after Kennedy’s death, and I’m sure it triggered many people’s interest in the Peace Corps,” Charles said. “The Peace Corps was being floated as something exciting.”
The Rev. Edmund Nadolny was a 25-year old priest in 1963, heading to Thomaston from Waterbury Hospital when he heard that a gunman had shot Kennedy.
“I remember going to church and crying like a baby,” said Nadolny.
He wasn’t alone, and remembers that many came to church in the days after the assassination.
“The best way to support people at that time was to cry and to pray with them,” said Nadolny, a longtime pastor at St. Stanislaus Church in Meriden who now serves in Berlin. “There was a lot of compassion shown at the time.”
Much was made of Kennedy’s Roman Catholic religion before the election but Nadolny said concerns dissipated after it was clear that the president wasn’t going to take political direction from the Vatican.
“Once he got in there, the church had no influence on him,” Nadolny said. “But I hope the Catholic Church had an impact on his life.”
When Nadolny learned that Kennedy had died, he cried for the president not a fellow Catholic.
“It wasn’t because he was Catholic, it was because he was President of the United States. What Lee Harvey Oswold did to him he did to all of us,” Nadolny said. “Everybody who was an American citizen was affected at that time. It was a personal blow.”