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From The Republic Archives / Sister Mary Luke Jones, a catholic nun now living in Beech Grove, remembers April 29, 1960, the day she got to shake the hand of then-Sen. John F. Kennedy during his presidential campaign swing into Jackson and Bartholomew counties. She is the middle girl of the three immediately facing the candidate.
A friend sent Sister Mary Luke Jones a copy of the Nov. 22 Seymour Tribune. She looked on the front page and saw a photo she never knew existed.
She was in it. So was Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., who would later become president of the United States, a presidency that was terminated by an assassin Nov. 22, 1963.
The picture was taken by a photographer from the Columbus Evening Republican. It was part of the newspaper’s coverage of a remarkable visit April 29, 1960, to Jackson and Bartholomew counties by the young senator, who was running for his party’s presidential nomination. His visit here was an attempt to run up an impressive total of votes in the Indiana primary election, which was held four days later.
Several of the photos from the Columbus portion of the Kennedy visit were used in this space Nov. 22, the 50th anniversary of the day he was killed in Dallas. In planning the coverage of the anniversary, it had occurred to me that it would be more fitting to look back on that 1960 visit rather than the traumatic recollections of the assassination.
Sister Mary Luke’s reaction to seeing the image of Kennedy shaking her hand confirmed that it was the right call. Actually, the photo of the two of them at the Farmers Club in Seymour did not appear with that column last month. Since it involved Seymour, I forwarded it to Dan Davis, editor of The Tribune, who used it to illustrate his paper’s coverage of the anniversary.
Sister Mary Luke, a Catholic nun who lives in Beech Grove, was a sixth-grader at St. Ambrose Elementary School in Seymour on that April day in 1960.
“Actually, we were in classes when the senator was scheduled to appear at the Farmers Club in Seymour,” she recalled from her office in the Benedictine Monastery in Beech Grove last week. “I remember being very disappointed that we would miss seeing him, but on our lunch break while I and a couple of friends — Dorothy Colvin and Susie Moore — were walking toward the drugstore that was owned by my grandparents, we noticed quite a bit of commotion at the Farmers Club, which was across the street from the drugstore.”
The commotion was the last-minute preparation for the candidate’s arrival. He was already two hours behind schedule when he arrived in the city. The scene inside the club was crowded and chaotic, but that didn’t deter the three young students.
“We were determined to see him, so we just wiggled our way through the crowd and eventually came face to face with him,” she said. “He shook our hands, and I remember that my reaction was pretty typical of what you’d expect from a sixth-grader. I swore I’d never wash my hands from that day forward.”
If there was an exchange, it was one-sided on the part of the young girls. The candidate had come down with a bad case of laryngitis and been ordered to not talk by his doctors.
That situation played into Kennedy’s brief meeting with Sister Mary Luke’s mother, LaVerne, a nurse at Schneck Memorial Hospital, who had come to the club to see him in person. “I talked to her that night at home, and she told me that she had given him some hints on what to do about his throat condition.”
Brief as the moment was, the meeting of the schoolgirl with a future president would have an effect that remains with her today.
“I remember keeping scrapbooks about him, newspaper accounts of his speeches, photos, that sort of thing,” she said. “At one point in time I even wanted to join the Peace Corps because of his inspiration.”
She acknowledges that their shared Catholic faith was a major bond, especially at a time when his candidacy was being challenged by people of other faiths who argued that as a Catholic he would be too beholden to the pope. “It was really a ridiculous attitude, but I always admired him for the manner in which he addressed it,” she said.
Sister Mary Luke’s devotion to the slain president would be tempered in later years when stories of his womanizing emerged. “The stories about his philandering did shake my faith in him,” she recalled. “At first I dismissed them as rumors, but I’ve since come to accept them as reality.”
While she has had to balance her ambivalent attitudes about Kennedy, the image of his shaking her hand more than 53 years ago has brought back memories of another time when things were a lot simpler and a young girl could believe in childhood heroes.
Maybe it’s not the defining memory of a president with flaws, but it is one she will treasure for years to come.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at email@example.com.
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