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JFK library releases letters to a grieving widow

At top: Among the letters sent to Jacqueline Kennedy were a painting from Roy L. Baynes of Montclair, Calif., who sent a note with the work. Below, Itala Bessi of Pisa, Italy, offered a bust of President Kennedy that her husband made.

The handwritten words, etched in now-faded blue ink in tidy cursive handwriting, stretch for nearly three pages.

The note, buried for 50 years among thousands of condolences from around the world, was penned by a grieving mother to a newly grieving widow and carried a message of perseverance, hope, and faith.

“When the tragic news came across the airwaves again my heart said, ‘It isn’t true. It didn’t happen,’ ” Maxine McNair of Bessemer, Ala., wrote in a Feb. 4, 1964, letter to Jacqueline Kennedy. It was one of the many condolences she received after President Kennedy was assassinated the previous November.


Just two months before the tragedy rocked the country and prompted an outpouring of national grief, McNair had faced the depths of her own despair: Her daughter, Denise, was one of four young girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a crime considered a catalyst of the civil rights movement.

Persia Campbell of Queens College in New York sent a photo of a 2-year-old boy in Kenya named Kennedy Mbatia.

“Isn’t it strange how people with so much to give the world are taken? That’s God’s will, however, and not for us to question,” McNair wrote in her letter, which also included a card and photo from her daughter’s funeral. “May God’s infinite wisdom comfort and guide you, and your family.”

The letter was just one of hundreds made public for the first time this week as part of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum’s ongoing curation of the family’s personal papers and effects.

While hundreds of letters written to the Kennedy family following the president’s assassination had been previously made public, the newly released documents contain more than 22,000 pages of correspondence that included specific requests of Mrs. Kennedy and were handled by her personal secretaries.

“There are so many hidden treasures in this institution. . . . We didn’t know the McNair letter was in there until we opened the collection and processed it,” said Tom Putnam, director of the library. “We first did her White House years, and then we came upon this collection and we thought the 50th anniversary of the assassination would be the appropriate time to open it.”


Dozens of the letter writers asked Mrs. Kennedy to provide photos of her husband. Many others said they hoped she could appear at charity or public mourning events.

Among the letters: a letter from a French teacher describing memorial tributes made by her students; a photograph of a young Nigerian boy named Kennedy holding a picture of the president; a letter from a 10-year-old girl asking Mrs. Kennedy to visit her home in Louisiana; as well as letters and photographs from a number of painters, sculptors, and other artists wishing to give their tribute pieces to Mrs. Kennedy.

JFK library archivist Jennifer Marciello went through some of the newly released letters at the library Tuesday.DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/Globe Staff

“It speaks to the personal connection that people felt with the first family,” said Jennifer Marciello, the archivist who curated the newly released 44 boxes of letters and replies. “The scope and extent of this collection captures the power that President Kennedy had over the imaginations of the nation. In those early years, people felt like they were part of the Kennedy family.”

Jacqueline Kennedy also received a number of more specific requests.

The Rhode Island General Assembly wrote to inform her that it had passed a resolution formally requesting that she move to Newport. The chairman of the World Adoption International Fund invited her to be his guest of honor at the group’s annual Royal Ball. The city clerk of Cambridge wrote to inform the Kennedys of a resolution that the City Council had passed in the slain president’s honor.


In the midst of the influx of letters and cards, Jacqueline Kennedy recorded a brief televised thank you message to the nation.

“The knowledge of the affection in which my husband was held by all of you has sustained me. And the warmth of these tributes is something I shall never forget,” she said in the Jan. 14, 1964, broadcast. “Whenever I can bear to, I read them. All his bright light gone from the world. All of you who have written to me, know how much we all loved him and that he returned that love in full measure.”

Mrs. Kennedy did not respond personally to the letters, relying instead on a team of secretaries. Some of the writers were sent photographs of the family. However, most of the requests — such as those asking Mrs. Kennedy to attend various events or to endorse biographical projects about President Kennedy — were denied.

But each request for a specific gift, action, or service got a personalized reply, many of which were similar in style and tone to the Feb. 13, 1964, response that Mrs. Kennedy’s secretary Nancy Tuckerman sent to McNair.

“Mrs. Kennedy is deeply touched by your expression of sympathy," Tuckerman wrote, “. . . and wishes me to assure you of her sincere appreciation of your prayers.”


Wesley Lowery can be reached at wesley.lowery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesleyLowery.