Dateline: January 20, 1961

After serving on Senator John Kennedy’s campaign staff in the months leading up to his successful election as President, my dad was then appointed Executive Director of his inauguration. 

What that meant to our family were special perks. We had a bird’s-eye view of the youthful President as he delivered his memorable speech. We watched the parade and sympathized with the Colonial fife players who wore thin cotton gloves in the 20-degree weather. We eyeballed Jackie and Jack as they waltzed past our box in a glittering ball at the Shoreham Hotel.

But before any of that, my brother, sister and I had to get to Washington from scattered locations north.  (Another brother had a final exam at Princeton that Friday and couldn’t leave the university.)  A nasty nor’easter blanketed the capital with snow, causing utter havoc through the city. It also shut down Washington National Airport. 

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote: “It had been cold all week in Washington. Then the snow came. Traffic stopped all over town. People abandoned their cars in snowdrifts and marched grimly into the gale, heads down. By midnight the city was choked with snow. Workmen labored to clear Pennsylvania Avenue. Soldiers used flamethrowers to melt the frozen drifts.” 

As a freshman at college in upstate New York, I flew from Albany to New York City early on January 19, then boarded an afternoon flight to Washington. I spotted Adlai Stevenson sitting two rows ahead of me, giving me comfort that the pilot would actually make it to Washington safely despite the growing storm. 

Not quite. We had to land at Richmond. Then, along with Adlai, I climbed aboard a Greyhound bus that slipped and skidded its way to the capital.

Brother Ross was coming from Hanover, New Hampshire, via Boston. The snowstorm was blanketing the entire east coast, and his Eastern Airlines flight was cancelled.  All trains were also stopped by the weather, so he bought himself a one-way bus ticket from Beantown to D.C. 

Before phoning our mother to tell her he would hopefully arrive in Washington early morning on January 20, he placed an English text book he was studying for a course at Dartmouth atop the phone booth. When he hung up, he discovered someone had stolen the book so he had nothing to read during the all-night bus trip.

Amazingly, sister Robin had been able to take the train from her school in Philadelphia to D.C. with no problem.

Inauguration day was bitterly brisk but sparkling with sunshine. We were sitting right up front when JFK said, “Ask not what your country can do for you…”. We watched poet Robert Frost struggle to read his poem, “The Gift Outright”, and then recite it entirely from memory.

During the endless parade, we were fortunate to sit in a reviewing stand next to the West Entrance to the White House.  My key memory is that it was frightfully cold. A highlight was watching Robert F. Kennedy, sitting atop his open-back limousine, tip his hat to his brother, the new president, as their cars passed each other when JFK’s limo turned into the West Entrance

My sister and I cannot recall what we wore to the Inaugural Ball but, knowing our mother, we were undoubtedly outfitted in lovely long dresses. But that same mother was not above snatching six red satin pillows from the Presidential reviewing stand where JFK and Jackie had sat. 

We kids have no idea where those pillows are today.  But we will never forget January 20, 1961.