The death of President John F. Kennedy a half-century ago shattered Mary Murphy’s faith in a natural order in which, for her, assassination simply did not occur in the United States.
“I couldn’t believe it,” recalled Murphy, a Framingham resident who had worked on Kennedy’s campaign for US Senate in 1952. “It was very bewildering.”
Two months later, Murphy’s stunned disbelief had been channeled in a productive direction. From a cafeteria at Framingham State College, the young English professor directed 100 volunteers as they fulfilled Jacqueline Kennedy’s request that each letter to the family be answered with a hand-addressed acknowledgment.
“There was such a feeling — right when you got the news and over the next several days — that you were totally helpless and could not do a thing in response to this tragedy,” the 86-year-old Murphy said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “This made the people who participated in this project feel they had done something.”
Murphy had been enlisted by a fellow graduate of Trinity College in Washington who had married a cousin of the president. Twelve years earlier, that friendship had led Murphy to organize a campaign tea in Framingham, where then-Congressman Kennedy appeared with his mother, sisters, and Ethel Kennedy.
‘This made the people who participated in this project feel they had done something.’
After the assassination, Murphy and her volunteers acknowledged about 15,000 letters over two weeks in early 1964. The work was done in secret to mask the reality that the president’s widow could not possibly answer each letter.
“This is the amazing thing: People really thought the Kennedys would be able to read these personal letters like they were cousins,” Murphy said. “That was very, very moving.”
Even if Jacqueline Kennedy could not acknowledge each letter, she left explicit instructions about how to reply to them, Murphy said. The envelopes were addressed in black ink, with black pens, and filled with cards emblazoned with the Kennedy crest that said: “Mrs. Kennedy is deeply appreciative of your sympathy and grateful for your thoughtfulness.”
The condolence letters were touching in their heartfelt simplicity, Murphy said. A few, including a letter to Jacqueline Kennedy from the wife of astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space, came from names she recognized.
Murphy recalled that the letter said: “It was only a few weeks ago that we met in the Rose Garden.”
Murphy’s volunteers formed one of many groups around the country that answered about 1 million letters. College students, staff, and volunteers from the Catholic Women’s Club and St. Bridget Catholic Church in Framingham answered her call to help.
“We were warned not to put anything on these cards, that the cards should be exactly what Mrs. Kennedy sent to us and not even let on to anybody that we had anything to do with it,” Murphy said. “These were ordinary people who wrote the letters, and these were ordinary, everyday people who answered them.”
One of those volunteers was Carol Close Hazel, a student of Murphy’s who estimated she addressed up to 200 letters. Hazel, a retired teacher who lives in Framingham, said she can recall the thank you notes and the black borders of the cards.
“It helped us to be able to do something,” said the 68-year-old Hazel, who taught for 30 years in the Waltham schools. “What can you do when a president is assassinated? What can you do? There isn’t much.”
But Murphy, a teacher “who was an inspiration to all us,” instilled in her group a determined sense of purpose, Hazel said. That work helped console young college students who, like Hazel, had headed down the hill to St. Bridget Church after hearing of the assassination.
“We all prayed, and we all cried,” she said. “I always get sad at this time of year because it brings back such memories.”
Memories of that time, including Murphy’s work on the letters, will be discussed at a Framingham History Center event scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, at Edgell Memorial Library.