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  • Dolly Bellavance, third woman from left, was among City Hall employees who lined up to meet then-Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy on his Jan. 25, 1960, visit to Nashua to announce his candidacy for president. Bellavance recalled the experience during a recent Nashua history forum organized by Mayor Donnalee Lozeau.
  • The Nashua Telegraph of Jan. 25, 1960, announces John F. Kennedy's visit to Nashua on Page 1.
Saturday, February 26, 2011

High school kids benefit from living history lesson about JFK

Dean Shalhoup

I’ve been trying for a month to recall something – anything, even the tiniest shred of evidence – that I was, or at least could have been, tucked somewhere in the scrum of gray suits and black overcoats that took over City Hall Plaza one winter morning long ago.

Still, nothing clicks. Or, in the words of the inimitable philosopher Curly Howard, “I’m trying to think, but nothing happens.”

Which could very well be my answer: If I can’t conjure as much as a snippet of firsthand recall, it’s a good bet I wasn’t there.

I’m pretty sure John F. Kennedy was the first president I got to meet in person. But I don’t think it happened that day some 51 years ago, when Kennedy made his now famous stop in Nashua for the express purpose of announcing his candidacy for president.

I got to thinking last month about that visit, drawn mostly by listening to all the coverage of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s almost revolutionary inaugural and the vim-and-vinegar, new-generation address that juiced even the most apathetic of Americans.

Meanwhile, inside the same building whose front yard was ground zero for Kennedy’s 1960 announcement and supporter meet-and-greet, a little project was taking shape that would mark the two anniversaries not with pomp and circumstance and political ramblings, but a fascinating exchange of contrasting perspectives on one of the most talked-about eras in American history.

Loosely called something like “seniors and seniors talk Nashua history,” Mayor Donnalee Lozeau’s idea to invite to the table two kinds of seniors – high school and “in life” – got so lively, it ended up running way past its one-hour time frame.

“It was wonderful to be able to listen to the experiences of some of the people who were present at the time Senator Kennedy visited Nashua,” Nashua High School North’s Emily Kepner wrote in her e-mail response to my profound and deeply thoughtful query, “So, how’d it go?”

Emily is a sophomore – but she and a couple of other non-seniors were invited in their role as school newspaper reporters, hers being the Titan Times.

“Often people my age forget that Nashua has more history than meets the eye,” Kepner wrote, describing what was probably the afternoon’s hottest topic: security and protection, then and now.

“It would be rare to see a politician walking freely down Main Street these days,” she wrote. “Those present when JFK visited had many thoughts about the tighter security these days.”

“Those present” would be longtime Nashuans Julie and Lou Desmarais and Dolly Bellavance, who, from all accounts, proved more than capable in holding up the “seniors-in-life” side of things after learning several other invited seniors wouldn’t be able to make it.

Julie Desmarais was particularly impressed.

“Those young people were unbelievable,” she said. “It was so wonderful to see them so interested in what we had to say.”

And there’s lots to say, indeed, for those such as the Desmaraises and Bellavance, who found themselves in the thick of the action on that wintry but electric afternoon of Monday, Jan. 25, 1960.

“Kennedy walked down Main Street and went into every store along the way,” Julie Desmarais recalled.

“You’d never see that today,” she added, referring to the absence of police, bodyguards and “handlers” who feel the need not only to be present en masse these days, but to envelop their candidate in a collective cocoon of humanity on campaign stops they laughingly call “meet-and-greets.”

It was in one of those crowded stores that Desmarais, who had been tailing Kennedy downtown, finally came face to face with the charismatic candidate, who promptly extended his right hand.

“I said, ‘Please excuse my mittens,’ ” Desmarais recalled. “He said, ‘Oh, that’s OK, I wish I had some.’ I remember his big smile.”

A bit later, Desmarais watched as Kennedy rounded the corner of Main and West Pearl streets, shaking hands and seemingly making his way toward one of the era’s most distinguished downtown landmarks: Miller’s department store.

As he approached the store, Desmarais said, another celebrity appeared.

“Jackie came right out to meet him,” Desmarais said. “He put his arm around her and they continued on, arm-in-arm. Imagine, just walking down the street like that.”

Such anecdotes made Frank DelPizzo’s day.

“For me, (hearing) their personal accounts of meeting Kennedy and living (at the time of) the Cold War made that era in history more than just words in a textbook,” the Bishop Guertin senior wrote.

“I appreciated their experienced opinions on current political events. … They illustrated key differences between the ’60s and the present time,” DelPizzo added.

He said another highlight was the group’s discussion comparing what he called “the dynamics of U.S. politics” of both eras.

“This was more than a history lecture for me,” he said.

In the end, Lozeau also gave the forum a double thumbs-up.

“I think it’s safe to say everyone went away with a better understanding of the times then and now,” she wrote. “Somehow, I think President Kennedy would have been quite pleased with the quiet, yet thoughtful, way in which we remembered his visit here.”

And it’s a good bet, being the voracious reader and erudite chap he was, Kennedy would have been extra pleased with how eloquently young Emily Kepner summed up the afternoon:

“Attending the forum was a great experience, because sometimes, listening to those who were a part of the past teaches you more than what you could ever learn from a history book.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 31, or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.