My JFK Connection in One Family Photograph

My JFK Connection in One Family Photograph
Walter B. Chilsen, my Grandfather, with John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy at a 1960 Presidential Primary event in Merrill, WI.

I can tell you where I was on the day JFK was shot, and how I heard the news. And I can tell you what the following weeks felt like to a six-year-old girl in Northern Wisconsin during a dull November when all the adults around her were sad and a bit terrified. But I have an actual personal connection to JFK; a photograph that is treasured in my family. It's a picture of my paternal grandfather beaming impishly at Jackie Kennedy while John Kennedy beams at him with that famous grin. All of them are posed for the camera, and in the background you can discern a line of men patiently waiting to take their turn.

John F. Kennedy and Jackie were in Wisconsin for the Presidential Primary campaign in 1960. Wisconsin was an important state for them. According to PortalWisconsin.org,

"Kennedy scored 476,000 votes to Hubert Humphrey’s 366,753 votes in the Wisconsin Primary that year. [It was] the only election John Kennedy won in Wisconsin. In the November general election, a majority of Wisconsin’s voters, and [the] state’s electoral votes, went to Richard Nixon."

But as a kid, I didn't know about electoral politics. For me, this photograph was associated with fortune (our family's brush with greatness) and also fear (my father went into politics too, and Kennedy's son John-John and I were nearly the same age).

On that day 50 years ago, our school-day was interrupted by the principal's voice on the loudspeaker. She announced there was some news to share, and then put the radio close to the microphone. It was a weird moment, everyone looking around wondering what was going on. I recall a kind of desperation in the air. Then, apparently realizing that the radio sound was ineffective she interrupted to make the announcement herself. I'm pretty sure we all went home early. And then there were what seemed like weeks of watching a flag-draped coffin on TV.

My grandfather was a newspaper man in Northern Wisconsin. He founded, together with his brother Joe, the Merrill Daily Herald. Most of his family worked at the paper at some point in their childhood, so it was probably natural that my dad went into radio (he still has a great voice), and later television as the first news anchorman for northern Wisconsin. Later, dad added politics to the mix, serving for 24 years in the Wisconsin State Senate.

Photographs have a concrete quality. That moment took place. The physical reality of it is documented. There are those who could probably give me the names of all those barely visible people in the background.

But as is also typical of photographs, there's much that isn't known, or that I only half-know about that moment. And it's the ability to look at it, informed with knowledge from the passage of time and events that lends this otherwise minor moment larger meaning and significance.

The Kennedy event was a luncheon, or possibly a breakfast hosted by the paper my grandfather published. As a lifelong Republican, my grandfather might have felt that Kennedy was better company than his opponent, the more liberal Humphrey. The photo was most likely taken by a photographer for the Merrill Herald, though a cousin of mine wonders whether it might have been a photographer traveling with the Kennedys. Possible, since they were pretty media savvy people.

In the picture, my grandfather appears to just be turning from the encounter. He might have been nervous, maybe getting out of the way so as to give all those men behind him a chance for their own moment with this up-and-coming star. The Kennedys seem calm and gracious, a young political couple on the cusp of greatness.

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