New England News
5:15 pm
Fri November 22, 2013

Local Historian's Unique Experience the Day JFK Died

James MacGregor Burns with then President-elect John F. Kennedy in Palm Beach, Florida in 1960.
Credit Stewart Burns

Fifty years after the assassination of President Kennedy, Americans across the country are recalling where they were and what they were doing the moment they heard the news. This is the story of a western Massachusetts man and his unique experience that day.

Stewart Burns, of North Adams, was in band practice at Mount Greylock Regional High School when he heard the superintendent’s voice over the PA system notifying students and faculty that the president had been shot.

“The trauma for me was very different than for just about anybody else except for my siblings,” Burns said. “That is that I knew President Kennedy. I had met him several times. I had been to his home in Georgetown, Washington D.C. He had been to my home in Williamstown.”

Burns’ father, James MacGregor Burns, campaigned with JFK in 1958 when Kennedy was running for reelection to the U.S. Senate and Burns was vying for a seat in Congress. Having lost the race, Burns went on to write the first biography of JFK titled John Kennedy: A Political Profile, published before he was elected to the Oval Office in 1960.

“What my father told me later was that he was actually teaching a political science class at Williams,” Burns recalled. “In the middle of this class someone came in and told him. Everyone knew that he was a friend of Kennedy’s, he was his biographer and he was an expert on Kennedy. Someone came in and told him that Kennedy had been shot and killed.”

Burns says he remembers going home that afternoon and seeing his father transfixed to the television as most Americans were. But, soon the elder Burns became part of the news coverage despite a recent rift with the president over the biography.

“As early as that night, Friday night, but certainly by Saturday morning, these huge vans descended on our home at the foot of Park St. in Williamstown and kind of jam-packed into our driveway,” he remembers. “One from each of the national networks, NBC, CBS and ABC. Because my father was his biographer, friend, at times advisor and had known him well, he was somebody that everybody in the media world wanted to talk to and interview. So I remember just non-stop Saturday and Sunday our living room was just taken over by all the lights, cameras and wires.”

Now 50 years later, the younger Burns recalls the multiple occasions he met JFK, admitting he felt a closeness with the president. One of the most memorable includes taking the place of his father at a $100 per plate dinner in Boston in May 1961 and seeing a red-faced Kennedy smoking a cigar. As a 12-year old political enthusiast, Burns was tasked with keeping an eye on poet Robert Frost’s possessions at the table. Burns also recalls a less formal moment during the 1958 campaign.

“My father walked down to the limousine to get in and he said to Senator Kennedy, ‘My two boys are up on the porch there. Would you wave to them? Would you be willing to wave them?” Burns explains with excitement. “And Kennedy said ‘Oh, bring ‘em on down!”

James Burns is now 95 and unable to be interviewed. Stewart Burns went on to become a historian of the 1960s and currently works at Williams College.

“At that time he was my hero,” Burns said. “He was killed and taken from me and from all of us. That weekend of absolute horror I will never forget. It’s with me as vivid as today.”