In Monessen in 1962, JFK was one of the people

The Fuocos were Kennedy people.

We certainly weren't rich and didn't have a place in Hyannis Port -- or anyplace else for that matter other than our middle-class home in North Charleroi. But my parents, Albert J. and Marie Leone Fuoco, a steelworker and homemaker, felt deeply that John F. Kennedy was one of them. And, in the grand scheme, he was.

When in his inaugural address he remarked that "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage," he was speaking about them.

They were only eight years younger than JFK, the youngest president ever who succeeded the then-oldest president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like JFK, my father put his life on the line and fought for freedom in World War II, an Army machine-gunner who saw action in Germany, France and Italy.

Patriotic and down-to-earth, my parents were enthralled by a president who was young, modern, optimistic and visionary. With JFK, they felt all they desired seemed possible -- peace, racial justice, working class dignity, even putting a man on the moon.

So when JFK came to Monessen on Oct. 13, 1962, to stump for Democrats in the midterm election, we were there. My father, a local union trustee, went early to help set up the stage on the Sixth Street side of the A&P parking lot on Donner Avenue, hard by the sprawling Pittsburgh Steel Co. plant where he worked.

My mother took me, at age 11 now a JFK fan myself, and two of my friends. An estimated 25,000 people filled the parking lot and every adjacent street. I had never seen so many people, had never been part of anything so exciting.

And then, from our vantage point behind the stage, we saw him. I was in awe. He was handsome beyond description. He wasn't just tanned, he glowed. I had never seen a suit and tie so blue, a shirt so white. There seemed to be an aura around him. I felt I was in the presence of greatness. I never felt like that again.

After his speech -- I was too stunned to hear anything other than that distinctive Boston accent -- he left the stage. On the way to his limousine, he noticed a group of steelworkers about 100 feet away waving at him from atop boxcars on a rail line near the mill. He motioned for them to come down to him. Some men scurried down the boxcar ladder. Others, too excited to wait, jumped to the ground. Grown men, dressed in mill clothes, running and smiling like young boys to touch the hand of their leader. It was a moving scene.

And then he was gone. Flush with adrenalin, we couldn't quit smiling. Somehow in that crowd we ran into my father. He was beaming. In his hands was the wooden folding chair that JFK had sat on. He handed it to me. It was if it was the Holy Grail. My friends asked to hold it. I had never seen my father and mother so excited.

The next day, the Cuban Missile Crisis began. During those 13 days, when nuclear war seemed possible, I had never seen my father and mother so frightened. But they had faith JFK would find a peaceful solution. They were right and we all survived.

Two days before the crisis ended, Life magazine published a story about JFK and former President Dwight Eisenhower stumping for candidates. Included was a photograph on Page 47 from the Monessen rally. And there, to the right of President Kennedy, standing out from the crowd in a white coat, was my transfixed father. A modest man, my father was over the moon to be in the same photograph as his hero.

Thirteen months later, a girl walked into my seventh-grade class at St. Jerome Elementary School in Charleroi and handed the teacher a note. Blood drained from her face. "The president has been killed," she told us in a faltering voice.

At home that weekend, my family grieved in disbelief. My parents were so crestfallen, so seemingly adrift. As Kennedy people, they knew nothing would ever be the same again.

Michael A. Fuoco: or 412-263-1968.

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