opinion | Martin F. Nolan

Boston helped build JFK

President Kennedy attended Boston College graduation ceremonies in 1963, at which he gave the address.
President Kennedy attended Boston College graduation ceremonies in 1963, at which he gave the address.(Paul J. Connell)

His rhetoric was inspirational yet indirect. His demeanor was cool and unemotional. Those who knew John F. Kennedy seldom called him sentimental, except when he talked about his home town.

“I am not here to bid farewell to Massachusetts,” he told the Legislature on Jan. 9, 1961. “For 43 years — whether I was in London, Washington, the South Pacific, or elsewhere — this has been my home; and, God willing, wherever I serve this shall remain my home. It was here my grandparents were born — it is here I hope my grandchildren will be born.”

JFK’s first history tutor was his grandfather, John F. Fitzgerald, the former Boston mayor who force-marched his family on walking tours of the city’s monuments and memorials. Fitzgerald also enlisted his grandchildren as citizens of Red Sox Nation.


In his last major speech before his inaugural, the president-elect cited words engraved on a Beacon Street marker near the State House:

“I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella 331 years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. ‘We must always consider,’ he said, ‘that we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us.’ ”

Ronald Reagan adopted these words. In 1979, running for president, as his airplane approached Boston, Reagan told me, “Yes, Jack Kennedy used that phrase, as did John Winthrop,” then asked with a smile, “Didn’t we all borrow from the Bible?” Just so, in St. Matthew, 5:14, the Sermon on the Mount.

Always proimmigration, JFK joyously toured Ireland in June of 1963, wowing crowds in Wexford, Dublin, Limerick, and Galway, where he said that “if the day was clear enough, and if you went down to the bay, and you looked west, and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston.” He praised “cousins of yours who have gone to Boston and made good,” adding with Hibernian hyperbole, “nearly everybody in Boston comes from Galway. They are not shy about it at all.”


He enjoyed visiting Boston while president. An invitation to the Boston College centennial in April of 1963 meant “a great pleasure to come back to a city where my accent is considered normal, and where they pronounce the words the way they are spelled.”

Democrats filled Boston’s Commonwealth Armory for a 44th birthday tribute. The president recalled the advice of the New England poet, Robert Frost, who visited the young president after reading a poem at the inaugural: “When he came to the White House, he said, ‘You’re something of Irish and I suppose something of Harvard. My advice to you as president is to be Irish.’ ”

“We’re going to do the best we can,” JFK said, and with eloquent passion showed why Boston is more important to his legacy than Dallas.

“So I come back to this old city,” he said, “and I carry with me a message which is written on one of our statues by a distinguished and vigorous New Englander, William Lloyd Garrison: ‘I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard.’”

Martin F. Nolan is a former Washington bureau chief and editorial page editor for the Globe.