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John F. Kennedy forever a part of the Harford Co. legacy

BY KRISHANA DAVIS, kdavis@baltsun.com

6:15 AM EST, November 22, 2013

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In life and death, President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 50 years ago Friday, had numerous ties to Harford County, beyond the Northeastern Expressway that traverses the county and bears his name.

Kennedy campaigned in Harford when most local politicians considered him a long shot to win the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, but even before then his closest childhood friend lived in Fallston, where Kennedy is said to have visited on occasion.

After becoming President, JFK was an occasional visitor to the county, home of future Maryland U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings. Eight days before his death, the president dedicated the superhighway connecting Baltimore and Delaware.

The rifle that shot and killed the 35th president of the United States made at least one trip into Harford County as part of investigations into his death. A prominent Harford firearms expert testified before the select congressional committee that reinvestigated the assassination in the 1970s.

Kennedy's death rocks Harford

Not many feared that a political trip to Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963, would cost young President Kennedy his life. Mr. Kennedy headed to the Lone Star State to not only raise money for his looming 1964 re-election campaign, but also to mediate a conflict between local Democratic politicians.

That Friday, 50 years ago today, was just like any other Friday in Harford County. Children were in school, others were bustling around town anticipating the end of their work week and making their weekend plans. But, around 12:30 p.m. EST, the lives of Americans across the country changed forever.

In an age before texting, live Twitter updates from reporters and the Internet, The Aegis reported that Harford residents were informed of Kennedy's injuries, and then assassination, within minutes "due to modern communication through radio and television."

"Several school girls fainted in their classrooms when the news was received," The Aegis reported on Nov. 28,1963. County residents wept on the sidewalk and people across the county rushed home to receive more details about the tragedy. Many headed to churches to pray and grieve.

Activities throughout the weekend following Kennedy's assassination came to a halt in the county. "Weekend shopping continued, but visitors merely procured their necessities and hurried home," The Aegis reported days following the assassination.

On national mourning day, the Monday following Kennedy's assassination, "few countians were yet prepared to resume their normal activities," according to The Aegis reported. Most businesses, except for the necessities, remained closed.

Harford remembers Kennedy

Former state Sen. Joseph D. Tydings, 85, a Harford native who today divides his time between Monkton and Washington, D.C., became close friends and colleagues with President Kennedy while working on his 1960 campaign for president. Tydings stepson of U.S. Sen. Millard E. Tydings who served during the 1930s and 1940s spearheaded Kennedy's campaign in Harford County and around Maryland, helping the underdog become the top pick from the Democratic National Convention.

The president came up to visit Tydings at his family's Oakington estate, south of Havre de Grace, a few times in the summer of 1963, just a few weeks before his assassination, Tydings said.

Just two nights before Kennedy's assassination, Tydings visited the White House, where he had his own bedroom and occasionally visited with the Kennedy family. Tydings said the president gave him some last-minute, well-needed advice as he contemplated his announcement to run for the U.S. Senate.

"I had been invited to the White House for a dinner," Tydings recalled in a recent interview. "We had only spoken for two minutes. He said 'don't worry you'll win, all you have to do is send your wife out and you'll be in great shape.'"

The day Kennedy was assassinated, Tydings said he had just left a press conference where Tydings announced his resignation as Maryland U.S. Attorney; the president's brother, Robert F. Kennedy, was at the press conference.

"I had lunch and then I found he had been shot," Tydings said, sounding emotional during the phone interview.

Tydings said he remembers President Kennedy as having a great sense of humor, but being very, very direct.

"I listened to many of his phone conversations to politicians and leaders around the nation," Tydings said. "He didn't fool around. He was tough."

Kennedy treated people he worked with like members of his family, Tydings said. "He didn't treat me like some political guy who was running his campaign," he said.

Kennedy seeks DNC nod

When then-Sen. Kennedy announced his campaign for president, he was considered the underdog. Many Democrats across the country, and those in Maryland, were partial to then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson as a viable Democratic nominee.

Against the wishes of Maryland Gov. J. Milliard Tawes, Kennedy decided to run in the Maryland primary in 1960. During the Maryland primary, which was held just days after the Virginia primary — where he surprisingly won — Kennedy campaigned throughout Maryland by his private airplane, named for his daughter, Caroline.

President Kennedy's campaign in Harford County was spearheaded by former Maryland Del. Thomas J. Hatem, whose family was a long-time political fixture in Havre de Grace.

The late Mr. Hatem had strong ties and influence in the Maryland Democratic Central Committee and state Democratic Convention, according to his sister former Maryland Del. Rose Mary Hatem Bonsack, 82, of Aberdeen.

"Tommy led Kennedy's campaign effort in Harford County," Bonsack said. "He set up the polling places and got all of the bumper stickers."

Bonsack said Kennedy and her brother had a good, friendly relationship. She said her brother was enthusiastic about helping to get Kennedy elected because he thought he was the best presidential candidate.

"Tommy respected him a great deal and knew he could do it," said Bonsack, whose family was staunchly Democratic. "I think [Kennedy] respected my brother a great deal and my brother and my family respected Kennedy a great deal."

Bonsack keeps three handwritten letters President Kennedy wrote to her brother thanking him for spearheading his campaign in Harford and helping to get him elected.

Hatem wasn't the only one pushing hard for Kennedy in Harford County.

During Kennedy's campaign in Harford, State Sen. Tydings convinced Kennedy to make a special visit to Havre de Grace to speak.

"I knew he would only have time for one speech," Tydings said. "I picked Harford County because it was my home county."

Tydings said the campaign rented a late model convertible from Harford car dealer Joe Lee and drove into Havre de Grace. Kennedy spoke in front of the old city hall in Havre de Grace, where many political leaders and soon-to-be local political leaders were gathered.

Harford County Executive David R. Craig, who was just 10 when Kennedy campaigned in Havre de Grace, remembers the day like it was yesterday.

Although Craig comes from a family of staunch Republicans, even in the 1960s when the county leaned more Democratic, he recalled meeting Kennedy not once, but three times that day.

"When I first heard Kennedy was coming I was pretty upset it wasn't Nixon," Craig said recently. Craig was heavily interested in politics even at an early age, and asked his father to drop him off for the speech.

"There weren't a whole lot of people there," Craig recalled. "I asked my dad to drop me off when he did his weekend errands."

Craig said he noticed a line of convertibles coming up the road, so he quickly raced around to the back of city hall since so many streets were blocked off.

"I squeezed through to the front," Craig said. "I was so little, people just let me up to the front."

As Kennedy was getting out of the car, Craig said he shook hands with the soon-to-be-president. He said he realized Kennedy had to get onto the stage, so he raced over to the steps and shook hands with him again.

After the speech was over, Craig said he ran back over to the Kennedy's convertible.

"Before he got in the car, he patted me on the head," Craig said. "I don't know if he remembered me from the other two times or not."

Craig said he doesn't remember much of what Kennedy said that day, but does remember his speech wasn't too long.

"Once the crowd cleared up I waited for my dad to come back and pick me up," Craig said. "My dad drives up and I said to him 'so when do you think Nixon is going to come.'"

Kennedys wine, dine in Harford

During the course of Sen. Tydings and President Kennedy's friendship, the Kennedy family traveled to Oakington many times for dinner parties and weekend getaways with the Tydings family. Senators and local politicians, nationally known business leaders and other influential people would gather at the Tydings estate for the get-togethers.

During one dinner at Oakington in August 1963, Tydings said, the president urged him, then a Maryland U.S. Attorney, to run for Maryland's U.S. Senate seat in 1964. (A year later, Tydings would fulfill the late president's wish. He served a single term, losing a re-election bid in 1970.) 

Craig, a young teenager, would often travel to the Tydings' home and park cars during the parties.

"They would drive up to the house and I would park the cars," Craig said. "The vice president [of the United States] would come in by plane and land in the yard."

Craig said his first encounter with U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was while working as a valet at the Tydings' home. He said he also met American businessman and politician Nelson Rockefeller and several U.S. senators.

Years before meeting Tydings, President Kennedy also visited Harford County to spend time with Kirk LeMoyne "Lem" Billings, his childhood friend and prep school roommate, whose family owned a huge farm and home in Fallston.

David Owen, 61, who bought the Billings farm at foreclosure 25 years ago, said he was unaware of the property's history or its connection with Kennedy when he purchased it.

"My wife and I had just gotten married and we decided to put a bid on it," Owen said. "I liked it because it's an old house and completely isolated off the main road."

Owen said he discovered the history of the 13-acre property after speaking to area locals.

"The locals out there call it the Kennedy Place because he was there so many times," Owen said. "But at the time no one knew who they were... and now Americans have a love affair with the Kennedys."

Over the 25 years Owen has owned the property, which has a four horse barn, a four bedroom house with three fireplaces and a two-acre lake, he has acquired several photos of President Kennedy at the home posing alongside Billings.

"They had parties that would go for what felt like days," Owen said. "LeMoyne became an integral part of the Kennedy family."

The Lee Harvey Oswald rifle

Since the assassination of President Kennedy, tons of conspiracy theories have surfaced questioning the ability of Lee Harvey Oswald, who was arrested and charged with killing the president, to be able to shoot three consecutive rounds with the 6.5 Carcano Model 91/39 carbine rifle, which was found on the scene.

The rifle in question made at least one trip to Harford County immediately following the assassination to test if it indeed was the firearm used to take the life of the young president.

In the 1960s, H.P. White Laboratories, an independent ballistics testing facility in Street, had a contract with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for testing services.

Though the original owner of the lab, Henry Packard White, sold the laboratory many decades ago, Lester Rohane, chief engineer at H.P. White Laboratories for the past 30 years, said a single document was found connecting Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle to the lab.

"When people came asking about the rifle many years ago, we dug through boxes looking for the file," Rohane said. "The file was empty except for a single piece of paper from J. Edgar Hoover thanking Mr. White for his services."

According to reports from the 36th U.S. President's commission, known as the Warren Commission, the lab allowed three marksmen to test fire a Carcano rifle to determine if anyone could successfully fire the three shots Oswald is said to have fired in the 5.6-second time frame highlighted in the famous home-made movie Abraham Zapruder filmed that shows the president's assassination.

Reports confirm one of the three marksmen was able to successfully fire the three shots in the allotted time.

Donald Dunn, who purchased H.P White Laboratories from White, and sold it in the 1990s to an international company, said he was called on in the 1970s by CBS' famous journalist Walter Cronkite to recreate a test situation of the Kennedy assassination to confirm the shooting could happen.

"We tested for effectiveness and accuracy," Dunn said in a recent interview. "We built a tower that was in relation to the sun and a little road all in relation to the Texas School Book Depository [where Oswald fired the shot]."

Dunn said they gathered about 40 shooters ranging from expert Olympic shots, military men, police officers and newbies to test a Carcano rifle in the demonstration. He said about 30 shooters were able to hit the marks in 5.6 seconds.

Later, Dunn was asked to testify before the Select Committee on Assassination. Dunn said during the hearing there was a lot of discussion about a "pristine bullet," which wounded then Texas Gov. John Connally and Kennedy, yet had no markings aside from a small dent.

"All these experts said no bullet could have gone through that amount of material and remain pristine," Dunn said. "We tested in a set up using plastic materials set up like bone material to mimic the scenario and we proved it could be done."

But just as conspiracy theories about the assassination of President Kennedy continue, so does the president's legacy in Harford a half century after that fateful day in Dallas.