Kennedy’s call to service recalled 50 years later

Staff Writer

 Michael Wilson Michael Wilson The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, left its mark on many. The 46-year-old slain president’s legacy ran deep in several areas, not the least of which was the effect that his presidency, his life and his death had on young people with aspirations to enter public service and political life.

So impacted were citizens by the event that even today, 50 years later, they recall with vivid clarity the moment when they learned that Kennedy had been shot as he rode in an open convertible through Dallas, Texas.

Former Freehold Borough Mayor Michael Wilson has a crystal clear memory of that fateful day.

“I was in the eighth grade at St. Rose of Lima [in Freehold Borough]. We were in our classroom and they came and told us that the president had been shot. They sent us all home. All the schools closed for a week, and the stores closed, too,” he said.

 President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy ride in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963, shortly before the president was assassinated.  PHOTO COURTESY OF LIBRARY OF CONGRESS PRINTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy ride in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963, shortly before the president was assassinated. PHOTO COURTESY OF LIBRARY OF CONGRESS PRINTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION “I remember so well walking into the door from school and seeing my mom in tears. She was watching the television coverage. That’s when it really gets to you — when you see your parents reacting to something that way,” Wilson recalled.

Wilson, who would become the longestserving mayor of Freehold Borough, said Kennedy was an influence on him even at a young age. In college, when he “got the itch” to enter public service, he chose to join the Democratic Party.

“It was because of Kennedy that I became a Democrat. Not an easy feat when you have four kids in your family and three of them are Republicans,” Wilson said with his typical dry humor.

“I was the ‘black sheep’ of the family,” he said, adding that his uncle, former Freehold Borough Mayor Bill Boyle, was a Republican.

 Dr. Walter D. Greason Dr. Walter D. Greason But having three siblings who were tea party Republicans, as Wilson described them, did not daunt his resolve to stick to his Democratic ideals. His parents, however, were supporters of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and thought “he could save the world,” Wilson said.

“I really began to pay attention to things when Kennedy became president. I was old enough to understand that he was the first really young president, and he was so vibrant and very different from what we had seen before with President Eisenhower,” Wilson said.

He gravitated toward Kennedy and his ideals and began paying attention to the world news and the politics around it.

“I really became much more aware of politics when I was a senior in high school, after Bobby Kennedy was killed in June of 1968,” Wilson said. “When I attended Trenton State College [now The College of New Jersey], I joined the ‘Young Dems.’ I said to myself, let me see how this works, and I found out I really enjoyed it.”

Robert F. Kennedy, former U.S. Attorney General and senator of New York, was shot by Sirhan Sirhan on June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and died the following day. He was a leading Democratic candidate for the presidency at the time of his death.

Wilson began working at the “grassroots level” and then came home to help run a mayoral campaign for Democratic Party candidate Roger Kane.

“A few years later, they asked me to run for council,” he said. Wilson started his public service when he was appointed to the Freehold Borough Council after Patrick McMorrow stepped down in May 1979.

“I did run for election in November of 1979, and we were off to the races,” he said.

He lost to Ralph Musgrave by 30 votes with his first run for office, but never lost again. He was elected to the Borough Council in 1981, and took over as mayor after Mayor Jack McGackin died in office. He was elected every four years until he decided not to run for re-election in 2011.

Among the things he remembers most about John F. Kennedy was his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

“The generals wanted Kennedy to invade Cuba, but he stood up against them and said no. It would have meant World War III. I thought it was a gutsy thing to do, and I thought, ‘This guy has real courage,’ and I admired that,” he said.

Freehold Borough has been under majority Democratic rule for decades, with few Republicans seated on the council over the years.

But it wasn’t always that way. Before Kennedy’s presidency, there were many who belonged to the Republican Party in town. This was especially true among the town’s black population, according to town historian and former Councilman Kevin Coyne.

“Kennedy had a lot to do with the black vote moving to the Democratic Party,” Coyne said.

Blacks were predominantly Republican before Kennedy’s presidency and before the Civil Rights Movement, according to Coyne, who added that this was evidenced by the existence of the very active Freehold Colored Republican Club.

According to the historian, the black population gravitated toward the Democratic Party during the Civil Rights era after the GOP essentially turned away from the Civil Rights Movement and abandoned those voters.

“Those voters turned to the Democratic Party. Kennedy was very popular with the black population. And Kennedy made Democrats out of black voters,” Coyne said.

“I am not a political historian, but I think it is fair to say that, in Freehold Borough, the black vote moved from Republican to Democrat, and Kennedy had a lot to do with this.”

Coyne said that although the gravitation toward the Democratic Party may have begun during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, he believes it moved in earnest during Kennedy’s administration and was then solidified during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration.

Freehold native Dr. Walter D. Greason, a historian, teacher and author, commented on the voting practices of African-Americans over the years.

“African-Americans voted for the Republican Party whenever possible between 1870 and 1936. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s re-election campaign marked a turning point, especially for most black voters in the northern United States. By 1960, the numbers of African-Americans who remained firmly committed to the Republican Party were decreasing, and many of them lived in small, rural communities like Freehold.”

Greason is the author of “The Path to Freedom: Black Families in New Jersey.” He teaches economic development in the United States, world history and the history of American media at Monmouth University in West Long Branch.

Kennedy had a significant impact on young people, according to Lynn Reich, who served on the Freehold Borough Council from 1979-1990. A sophomore in high school when Kennedy was assassinated, Reich said she remembers well the day the president was shot.

She also remembers his words having a major impact on her.

“I think when President Kennedy said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,’ it resonated with a lot of young people,” Reich said. “It stuck in our minds, as we attempted to enter public service.”

Reich made three bids for the New Jersey State Assembly, but was unsuccessful.

“The president’s words stuck with me, as it did other young people,” she said. “I realized this was our country and I wanted to be a part of serving it.”