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Letters Capture Grief for President Kennedy
By KATIE ZEZIMA
BOSTON — Days after President John F. Kennedy was killed, Dr. Ira Seiler sat at his desk and wrote a letter of condolence to his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy.

“Today, on Thanksgiving, I keenly sense his death for it was just three years ago today that I forced my breath into the lungs of his newly born son,” Dr. Seiler wrote. John F. Kennedy Jr. was born premature; Dr. Seiler, a pediatric resident, said he placed a tube in the baby’s trachea and breathed air into his lungs.

“I met your husband only once after this but the part I played in saving his son’s life gave me a feeling of deep closeness to your husband,” Dr. Seiler wrote. He added: “I only wish I had been able to give my life in place of that of your husband. He had so much to offer.”

Dr. Seiler was one of more than a million people who wrote to Mrs. Kennedy in the months after her husband’s assassination in 1963. Many of the letters were destroyed — there were simply too many to keep — but thousands of others were stored at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, where they were rarely seen; even many of the writers forgot what they had said.

For a new book, “Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation,” released by HarperCollins, Ellen Fitzpatrick, a historian, culled through the archives. Now she has published about 250 letters, most for the first time, from people around the country who felt compelled to write to Mrs. Kennedy.

The letters, many of them eloquent expressions of grief — from a priest in an Eskimo village, schoolchildren in Texas, a middle-class family in California, a widow in Pittsburgh, a Louisiana woman with a fourth-grade education — provide a window into Americans struggling with poverty, fighting for civil rights and trying to comfort themselves and others in the face of the president’s death.

“The lights of the prison have gone out now,” wrote Stephen J. Hanrahan, Prisoner 85255, from a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. “In this, the quiet time, I can’t help but feel, that my thoughts and the thoughts of my countrymen will ever reach out to that light on an Arlington hillside for sustenance. How far that little light throws his beam.”

“There is great wisdom in the hearts of these average folks back in this moment in 1963,” said Ms. Fitzpatrick, an American political and intellectual historian and a professor at the University of New Hampshire.

The idea for the book came as Ms. Fitzpatrick was conducting research at the Kennedy library on another project and remembered how, when she was a young girl, she saw Mrs. Kennedy on television thanking Americans for sending letters of condolence. Ms. Fitzpatrick found the letters and started culling through them.

Because of copyright law, she could not publish the letters — from taxicab drivers to the widow of Medgar Evers to Langston Hughes — without permission from the writers or their heirs. So she enlisted the help of genealogists and others to find them.

Only one person asked that his letter remain private. Others were shocked to learn that theirs still existed.

“I had forgotten what I had written,” said Tom Smith, who skipped school at age 14 to see the Kennedys in his hometown, Dallas. About six blocks after the motorcade passed, he said, Kennedy was shot.

Days later, Mr. Smith bought a simple condolence card with his own money and mailed it to Mrs. Kennedy.

“I know the grief you bear,” he wrote. “I bear that same grief. I am a Dallasite.” He added, “I’m very disturbed because I saw him a mere 2 minutes before that fatal shot was fired.”

Mr. Smith, now 61 and living in San Antonio, said he had not realized how many people wrote to Mrs. Kennedy. “I felt so bad about it, and so much a part of it,” he said. “I thought I was the only one doing it.”

Some correspondents did not realize letters they had written to family members about the assassination had been sent on to Mrs. Kennedy.

Ann Owens, 72, of Seattle, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia when she heard that the president had been killed. Schoolchildren and villagers mourned, and the school where Ms. Owens taught was closed for days.

“I feel now as if a member of my family had died,” she wrote to her mother. “In a very real sense he was our idol; he is the reason for us being here — his idealism, his courage.”

Ms. Owens’s mother included her daughter’s letter with her own condolence note to Mrs. Kennedy, something Ms. Owens did not learn until she was contacted about the book. “It brought tears to my eyes to hear my mom’s words,” said Ms. Owens, whose mother died in 1990.

Many of the letters show how profoundly many felt Mr. Kennedy’s loss.

“Twenty-six years of escaping from Hitler — growing up in wartime China fleeing from Communism — watching my father’s futile struggle against cancer — seeing my roommate killed in an automobile accident — all these I deemed adequate preparation for some of life’s bitter moments,” wrote Gabriele Gidion.

“Yet NEVER, until last Friday, have I felt such a desperate sense of loss and loneliness,” she wrote days after the assassination.

Some historians view Kennedy as having been slow on civil rights. But many of the letters reveal how deeply he touched many black Americans.

“We are a middle class Negro family and had of course felt after so long that President was like a beacon — a light in the darkness who would indeed be a second emancipator,” wrote Cornelia M. Davis from Walnut Creek, Calif.

Dr. Seiler, who was only 29 when he assisted in John Jr.’s birth, said he had received a thank you note from the president-elect. Dr. Seiler was invited to the Inauguration — an occasion so special his wife wore her wedding dress — and was seated next to Adlai Stevenson.

Dr. Seiler was “devastated” upon hearing news of the president’s death, and wrote his letter in longhand. He never kept a copy. When it was read back to him over the phone as the book was being prepared, “I got a little bit too emotional,” Dr. Seiler said.

“I felt very strongly about him,” he said. “I really thought he was a great man.”
My mother was a HUGE supporter of JFK. I don't know whether she wrote to Jackie upon the assasination, but I DO know she wrote a note of sympathy at the loss of their son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, in August 1963.

I know this because in her Bible after my mother passed away, I found a small note card (preprinted) from Mrs Kennedy -- signed (although it may not be her hand) -- acknowledging the recipt and thanking her for her condolences.
 
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