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The Boston Globe

Metro

Brian McGrory

Shining a new light on a Kennedy line

Some memories die hard. Some people do, as well. Jamie Mills can still picture his father those 30-plus years ago, night after night, sitting in his chair, reading and writing himself to sleep. Jamie’s mother, Betty, had died not long before, and his father never slept in their bed again.

Instead, he sipped vodka and wrote until the hours overcame him. The next morning, he would put in another day of detective work at the Boston Police Department and start the routine all over again.

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Jamie never knew what his old man was writing, though there was barely a limit to what it could have been. What Jim Mills lacked in formal education, he made up in curiosity and brains.

He was a ham radio operator, an avid and artistic photographer, a Navy veteran who had learned early fingerprinting techniques while serving in the Criminal Investigation Command. He was an amateur hypnotist, a proud Freemason, and a fanatic about history, to which he devoted much of his time. Mills took his photographs, his books, his writings, and stored them in an old Plymouth Valiant named Betsy that spent its sunset years parked beside their house.

By 1981, the booze pried him from the job he loved, as a crime-scene photographer and fingerprint specialist. “Like all alcoholics, he lost interest in that which he was most interested in,’’ said his son, Jamie. In 1993, the vodka led him to an early death.

It was then, in the quiet of his father’s house in Hanover, that Jamie opened the files and was stunned by what he found: Mugshots that were as artistic as they were abrupt, elaborate sketches, personal recollections of the Boston Strangler case, photos of celebrities from the era. Jamie didn’t know whether to treasure it or publish it. He took years to study every photograph and read every page.

Which explains why a news story he heard on the radio one morning caught him short. A new book on John Kennedy by Chris Matthews, the announcer said. Fresh questions over the origin of the most famous line in his inaugural address. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’’ Kennedy’s prep school headmaster had said something similar in the 1930s.

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It nagged at him, that quotation, nagged at him until Jamie Mills pulled out his father’s papers and found one envelope, then another, three in all, each of them containing the same thing: A photocopied journal published in 1918 with a speech from the US vice president, Thomas Riley Marshall.

And on the third page of that speech, he found a quotation he vaguely remembered reading years before: “There are now, as always, just two grades of citizens in the Repeublic (sic) - the man who asks himself, ‘What can I do for my country?’ and the man who asks, ‘What can my country do for me?’ ’’

The Kennedy line, four decades before Kennedy recited it.

“Why my father didn’t say anything back then, I can only imagine,’’ Jamie said recently, recalling that his father was anything but a fan of the Kennedys. “But he left this in so many places I knew it was important.’’

Marshall, a witty pol best known for his line, “What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar,’’ served under Woodrow Wilson. Had Kennedy, or his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, read Marshall’s words? Did they fashion them into one of the most famous presidential quotations of all time? Those questions probably won’t be answered. In a 2008 memoir published two years before he died, Sorenson wrote, “The truth is that I simply don’t remember where the line came from.’’

But now it can be said that the thought, and some of the words, originated in an unheralded speech delivered by a little-known vice president, a secret whispered from the grave by a father to his son.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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