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Presidents’ Day | From the archives: October 21, 1979

Vignettes of the day

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in The Boston Globe on October 21, 1979.

In June 1977, when the Kennedy family held the ceremonial groundbreaking for the John F. Kennedy Library, the ground was so muddy that a shoe was occasionally suctioned off a well-heeled foot.

After that ceremony, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis waited briefly for a ride to the University of Massachusetts campus a few hundred yards away. She was surrounded by photographers as she stood in the mud. Suddenly she headed toward the campus, accompanied by Robert Wood, then president of the University of Massachusetts. She stepped over discarded tires, broken bottles and other debris littering the site, which was created from landfill.

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Yesterday, at the dedication of the library, the same piece of land had been transformed into a majestic setting enhanced by a warming Indian summer sun and a stiff easterly breeze off the ocean.

Where litter had blown in the wind 28 months ago, long- stemmed roses and chrysanthemums on the stage erected for the dedication bent and shimmied. Where there had been mud, there was freshly laid sod, and where there had been an open space, the 115-foot-high library towered, a new landmark, a symbolic beacon, over the waters of Boston Harbor.

At the start of the dedication ceremonies, the Boston Pops played three pieces. The third piece was “Stars and Stripes Forever. “ The stirring rendition had many in the audience clapping. On the platform, Joan Kennedy swung her foot in a small rhythmic arc and Joseph P. Kennedy 2d tapped his in time to the music. Joan Kennedy, who has a great interest in music, had selected the pieces played by the Pops.

As the music played, hundreds of photographers took pictures. So many camera shutters clicking at once made it sound as if a swarm of crickets were about to descend.

The faces and moods of the Kennedy family members and their guests on the platform often changed. Lady Bird Johnson, who sat next to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, kept time to the music and nodded her head in agreement whenever she agreed with a statement in the speeches.

When President Jimmy Carter first came out, he kissed Johnson. She didn’t seem to mind. But when he kissed Onassis, she looked as if she had bitten a lemon. When the President turned to go to his seat, Onassis looked at her children, John and Caroline, with an audacious expression that made them laugh.

Other than that show of expression, Onassis barely changed her position or her facial expression during the 90-minute ceremony. The wind flicked her auburn hair around her face in a constant motion. Her posture was erect, and she held her head high.

At one point, Stephen Smith, president of the Kennedy Library Corp., introduced “three very special guests,” and in turn he asked Johnson, Onassis and Ethel Kennedy, widow of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, to stand.

Maura Wall, a 20-year-old college student from Lynn, was one of the honorary ushers at the dedication. Like the other ushers, she wore a white turtleneck and a gray blazer with the letters JFK on the breast pocket. She said she had been given the jacket.

She was obviously excited about the event and, after helping guests to their seats, moved toward the platform to watch the ceremonies.

Within 10 yards of her sat the President of the United States and most of the Kennedy clan. To her left was one of the two press platforms clogged with media people. She turned to look at the television crews and suddenly shrieked:

“Oh, there’s Chet Curtis and Natalie Jacobson. I’ve seen the President before in Lynn, but I’ve never seen Chet and Natalie.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Wall explained about her reaction to seeing the two television newscasters from Channel 5 in Boston.

Wall stood throughout the dedication. At one point, when Sen. Kennedy spoke, her eyes teared over. When it was over, she turned to a friend and said, “It was so sad, wasn’t it? Really sad.”

The 7000 guests were all bused to the site from downtown hotels, the Commonwealth Pier and the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Cambridge. Dozens of buses were hired for the event by the Library Corp.

Invited guests were told to be at the pickup sites by 9 a.m. so they could be at the Columbia Point site by 10:30. At the Parker House, a line of guests stretched from the main entrance on School street around the corner to Tremont street.

By 9:30 only one busload had departed, and the other guests were getting nervous. Some late arrivals were cutting into line. Robert Farrell, chairman of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, was one of these.

He arrived and surveyed the long line. He stopped by the main entrance to the hotel, and his wife said, “We ought to go to the end of the line.”

Farrell looked again at the long line and in a hushed voice said, “For all we know, that could be the beginning of the line.” They stayed where they were.

The buses finally arrived, and all guests made it on time. On the bus, guests were informed of departure plans and told they would be served a box lunch. The lunch was half a ham and chesse sandwich, half a turkey sandwich, an apple, potato chips and a hermit cookie.

Special buses were on the site to take people to the Hyatt Regency as soon as the dedication ended so they could attend the Harvard-Dartmouth football game.

Two of the invited guests were sisters from Boston, Edna and Violet Harrison. Both are in their 60s, and Edna said she had met President Kennedy in 1945 and had worked on his first political campaign.

The two women asked everyone they did not know yesterday who they were, hoping to meet “people of prominence.” Like many there, they partook in the feast of Kennedy-watching. But for them, as for all the others present, it was a special day.

Just before the playing of “America the Beautiful,” which concluded the program, several excerpts from President Kennedy’s speeches were broadcast over the grounds of the library. The power of his words and the vibrant, lifelike quality of the voice brought tears to the eyes of many in the crowd.

”These eyes kept watering,” Edna said. “All the way down my cheeks the tears flowed. You hear the words and you remember you heard those words come from his mouth when he was alive.”

Still, the mood yesterday was one of life and joy rather than sadness. People strolled around the library grounds and through the building. Out on the choppy waters of the harbor, the sails of swiftly moving boats could be seen.

“I loved it today,” Edna said, looking out at the water. “The President would have approved. He loved the sea. It took a long time to get the library built, but I think it all worked out for the best.”

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