top of page

The memorable Thanksgiving 58 years ago at Arlington National Cemetery.

Repost from a year ago

Jackie and John and Caroline, 1964


Moments of gratitude: The memorable Thanksgiving morning on which I was able to pay tribute to President John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery. Nov. 28, 1963 is still special in my mind

… and the cherished family photo that we still have

From Nov. 22, 2020

My family made some unique Thanksgiving Day celebrations in the six years from 1958 until 1963. Prior to 1958, our traditional holiday dinner was similar to that of most families with the turkey and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie at our dining room table.

However, in 1958, it had changed from a family repast in our home in Lilly, Pa., to something a little less elaborate, but one that provided a rather distinctive and unforgettable feast.

This occurred because the Catholic seminary that my brother attended in Baltimore, Md., allowed him to leave for only about 12 hours on Thanksgiving Day. Therefore, he had no opportunity to return to his home and celebrate with his family.

Little did I know that the final visit with my brother on the last Thanksgiving at St. Mary’s would prove to be so memorable.

On that Thursday morning of Nov. 28, 1963, I had been granted an opportunity to visit the grave of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated on the previous Friday 57 years ago and interred at Arlington National Cemetery four days later.

Most of the country was glued to the television sets from Friday, Nov. 22 until the end of the state funeral on Monday, and our family was just like everyone else.

So, on this Thanksgiving Day six days after that brutal killing, I was able to visit his grave, say a prayer, and visualize the historical spot for my memory. And that was a particularly spiritual and emotional time for me.

While I first wrote about this on my blog seven years ago, here is that story as I can recall it in 2020 with many more details.

The visit to Brown’s Motel

Our family, instead of having Jim come home to Pa., went to visit him as close as we could to the seminary. What my parents decided to do was cook the turkey the day before Thanksgiving and take it and all of the other goodies with us to Brown’s Motel in Ellicott City, Maryland, which was about 13 miles from St. Mary’s Seminary at 400 North Paca Street — which by then was a pretty tough neighborhood.

St. Mary's Seminary, the first Catholic seminary in the U.S., on Paca Street, Baltimore

That was difficult since we had to refrigerate the food, but they did not have refrigerators in the rooms — nor, of course — did they have microwaves. Fortunately, the weather usually cooperated in the early years and was cold enough that the food could stay in the car.

Sounds primitive, but my parents were resourceful.

The morning of Thanksgiving, I accompanied my dad to St. Mary’s to pick up my brother and return and spend the day at the motel. It was a unique celebration.

November 1963 was different

However, after doing that for four or five years, we decided to celebrate at my sister’s apartment in Washington, D.C. She had returned to a job there after attending what is now Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

The apartment was in either Arlington or Alexandria, Va. — not certain exactly — and she had three roommates who had returned to their homes for Thanksgiving.

So, we had the place to ourselves. But, just two bedrooms.

Thus, the conundrum: There were not enough bedrooms for me.

Therefore, my sister had asked her boyfriend, whom I know by just his first name, John, if I could stay in his apartment.

So, that was where I was on Thanksgiving eve, 1963, when John asked, “Would you like to go to Arlington National Cemetery to visit President Kennedy’s grave?”

The answer was obvious, and at about 7 a.m., we departed from his place and set out for that journey.

History of the grave

What we visited then and the gravesite as it exists today are very different. I researched that on the ANC website to discover exactly what happened.

The photo below is as the site looks today. That was different from the location that his wife, Jacqueline, had selected in 1963, and that we had visited that Thanksgiving morning,

Eleven days prior to Kennedy's assassination, he returned to Arlington for the 1963 Veterans Day services. This time, he did not address the crowd in the amphitheater. On November 22, 1963, while on a campaign trip to Dallas, President Kennedy was shot and killed.

Kennedy is one of only two presidents buried at Arlington. The other is William Howard Taft, who died in 1930. At the time of Kennedy's death, many believed that he would be buried in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he was born and raised …

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy wanted her husband's gravesite to be accessible to the American public. In selecting a location, she consulted with the president's brother, Robert F. Kennedy, and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara—both of whom are now also buried at Arlington. The original gravesite was located on a sloping hillside along an axis line between Arlington House and the Lincoln Memorial.

“Presidential John Fitzgerald Kennedy Gravesite,” Arlington National Cemetery.

The JFK gravesite today: Arlington National Cemetery

My memory of that day

Some events in your life place an indelible imprint on you. This one did with me. What I distinctly recall on the bitterly, cold Virginia morning was standing on the hill above the grave and looking down into Washington, D.C.

I did not cry at the time, but I felt a deep sense of loss in my gut that I have not forgotten. I saw the grave of our late president juxtaposed above the monument to a tremendous leader who had also been gunned down by a crazed assassin, Abraham Lincoln.

The other point that I distinctly recall was the eternal flame that Jackie had placed near the grave that still burns 24 hours a day. She first lit that flame after he was buried on Nov. 25.

We were told anecdotally by some people that Jackie and some of the family had visited the grave earlier that morning, but I have no idea if that was true.

We were not permitted to move too close to the grave, which was protected at that time by military personnel and, I assume, cemetery security. I remember kneeling on the ground above the grave and saying a prayer.

After having seen all of the horrible events of the assassination of the president and then of his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, whom I still believe to be the one who fired the shots, I, like so many Americans, felt drained and a sense of loss.

This brought the events full circle and were a culmination for me of that period of mourning.

I felt that I could move on, though in all honesty, I am not certain that many of us ever did.

The Eternal Flame still burns today

John F. Kennedy Library

Movement of the grave

The numbers of people who visited the gravesite still continues to amaze me. However, in the first three years after his burial, the numbers were staggering, which led the family and ANC authorities to recommend a new location,

Although JFK never specified where he wanted to be buried, most of his family and friends assumed he would have chosen a plot in his home state of Massachusetts. Because JFK was a World War II veteran, he qualified for a plot at Arlington National Cemetery, but he also deserved a special site befitting his presidential status. The spring before he died, President Kennedy had made an unscheduled tour of Arlington and had remarked to a friend on the view of the Potomac from the Custis-Lee Mansion, reportedly saying it was "so magnificent I could stay forever."

After the assassination, the friend who accompanied JFK to Arlington that day relayed the comment to the president’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, who suggested the site to Jacqueline Kennedy, the president’s widow. Jackie, who was responsible for the final decision, toured the site on November 24 and agreed. “He belongs to the people,” she said.

JFK’s original gravesite attracted 16 million visitors in the first three years after his death. In 1967, the Kennedy family and Arlington officials chose to move JFK’s grave in order to construct a safer, more stable eternal flame and to accommodate the extensive foot traffic caused by tourists. The final resting place, which is only a few feet from the original site, took 2 years to construct, during which time JFK’s body was secretly moved and re-interred in a private ceremony attended by Jackie, his brothers Edward and Robert, and President Lyndon Johnson. The bodies of two of the couple’s children who died at birth were also moved to the new site from graves in Massachusetts.

“JFK’s body moved to permanent gravesite,” This day in history,, March 14, 1967

The Arlington National Cemetery website noted that the numbers in that first year after his death were very high,

The initial plot was 20 feet by 30 feet and was surrounded by a white picket fence. During the first year after Kennedy's death, up to 3,000 people per hour visited his gravesite, and on weekends an estimated 50,000 people visited.

Three years after Kennedy's death, more than 16 million people had visited the gravesite.

“Presidential John Fitzgerald Kennedy Gravesite,” Arlington National Cemetery

Family photo

My other special recollection of that visit in 1963, the last of our special Thanksgivings — though our turkey was cooked in my sister’s kitchen and not the day prior — was this photo.

It was the last of our family photos with just the four of us. My brother was ordained the following May, 1964, and my sister was married in June 1965. That ended the Thanksgiving family photos that my parents used to send out as Christmas cards.

From Thanksgiving Day, 1963: Jim, Pat, Mary Kay, Hugh

However, the memory of that trip to Arlington National Cemetery to visit President Kennedy’s grave is one that is indelibly etched into my memory.

67 views0 comments


bottom of page