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Rutkoski: A look back at Kennedy from a teenage newsboy

| Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, 11:00 p.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch staff writer Rex Rutkoski with his Kennedy assassination memorabilia and an autographed poster when John F. Kennedy was a candidate for president.

Decades later, many of the images remain as crisp as that historic day in Washington, D.C.

I was 13 on Jan. 20, 1961, and in the nation's capital with about a dozen other Valley Daily News (now Valley News Dispatch) newspaper carriers who had earned trips to John F. Kennedy's presidential inauguration.

We left Jan. 18 by train from what is now the Grand Concourse Restaurant in Pittsburgh's Station Square, arriving in Washington the next morning for a day of touring.

The profits from my carrier collections from the previous weeks burned a hole in my pocket. I quickly became every souvenir huckster's best friend.

Today, those souvenirs have acquired for me the status of valued treasures.

The inaugural program booklet remains mostly intact, if a bit wrinkled, in a bedroom drawer. A poster welcoming “Jack” hangs on a bedroom wall.

A snowstorm that the Washington Post described as “crippling” howled into the city that Thursday before the big ceremony. About 3,000 men and 500 trucks were summoned to work through the night to clear snow from the parade route.

A 6-inch snowfall was predicted by inaugural morning. A downtown department store reported it was selling long johns “as fast as we can bring them in from the stockrooms.” Most buyers were from out of town.

My mom packed my thermal underwear. I needed it as we walked the streets during the inaugural morning. The snow had stopped, but the temperatures were frigid.

Even at that young age, I think we appreciated that we should not let wind chills distract us from this special moment.

We shivered, but we listened to the words echoing from building to building over the public address system.

There was the legendary poet, Robert Frost, in his late 80s, proclaiming, “The land was ours before we were the land's.” Frost was the first poet to read at an inaugural ceremony.

Three years later, both he and the president he honored with his poetry would be dead.

It was not until years later that we fully took to heart Kennedy's wisdom: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”

We eventually understood: we were that generation.

Our top concern was finding a good place among the throngs — an estimated 1 million people were wrapped in blankets with hoods pulled over their heads.

The snapshots and notations in my yellowed attic scrapbook serve as a reminder of who passed in front of us that day: Robert Kennedy, Harry Truman, President and Mrs. Kennedy. My thoughts, as the Kennedys went by, traveled back three months earlier.

On Oct. 15, 1960, then-Sen. John Kennedy made a campaign stop in Kittanning.

My dad, a Democratic committeeman and a news correspondent who had the gift of talking us into places we might not have belonged, made sure I was stationed in the hall where Kennedy would pass to and from his speech.

As JFK walked toward me, I lifted my “Kennedy For President, Leadership for the '60's” poster, now framed and hanging proudly above me in my study as I write this, and summoned all the 12-year old courage I could muster.

“Would you please sign this sir?” I asked.

The man who would soon be president obliged.

As Paul Simon once sang, “Time it was, and what a time it was.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rrutkoski@tribweb.com or 724-226-4664.

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