The quadrennial ritual in which we install another Chief Executive is upon us. It got me thinking about the lavish pageantry of the Inaugural Balls that we see on television. I always thought about how fascinating it must be to attend a Presidential Inauguration in person. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that some of my relatives had the opportunity to do so.
I’d always heard these stories that my maternal grandparents attended John Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball in 1961. I found that interesting, but as an historian, I was skeptical. In my younger days I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, Jack McKeon. Always loquacious, he’d tell me all about his life story. He’d discuss his career working for the railroad. He’d talk about his experiences serving the nation in the Second World War. And he’d share his thoughts on politics. He lived in Riverton, but his heart belonged to the City of Brotherly Love. He avidly followed current events in Philadelphia.
As much as my grandfather discussed the topics of government and politics, I don’t recall him ever mentioning he attended a Presidential Inauguration. When I knew him his political views were solidly conservative. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that he would’ve attended a party commemorating the election of a Democratic President.
My parents were the ones who told me that my grandparents attended John Kennedy’s inauguration. My mom said my grandfather knew Chet Huntley of the Huntley/Brinkley team. Somehow, my grandfather got the tickets for the ball through him. I had no reason to disbelieve this, but I wanted to see some solid proof. I remember my grandfather had a bust of John Kennedy in his house, but that wasn’t exactly evidence. I needed something substantial. I wanted some incontrovertible historical evidence that he partied with a president.
Sometime after my mother passed away, I decided to investigate my family history. I figured that she must have had some old photographs from when she grew up. I looked all over the house but couldn’t find any. After a few weeks of searching, one day I was sitting in the living room looking at my grandparents’ wedding photo hanging on the wall across from me. I looked down to see the coffee table. For the first time in twenty years of looking at this particular piece of furniture I noticed there was a door on it. I opened it to reveal some old family albums that I’d never seen before. In one of them I found a series of pictures of my grandparents in formal dress. My grandfather was clad in a tuxedo while my grandmother was wearing a polka dot evening gown complimented by a black shawl. A pair of long white gloves covered her hands and forearms. I’d seen pictures of them out to dinner and dressed-up, but I never saw them wearing anything this elegant. I got to thinking about that rumor they attended President Kennedy’s Inauguration. They were certainly dressed for an event of that magnitude, but I needed to know more.
One day I started cleaning out the attic and found it. Buried under a number of old boxes, I located a stash of papers that belonged to my grandfather. Among them was a small envelope with his address. In the top left hand corner in bas-relief the words The Inaugural Ball stood out. The date January 5, 1961 grabbed my attention. I opened the envelope as carefully as my shaking hands would let me. Inside were four documents. One was a postcard. It read as follows:
NBC News 30 Rockefeller Plaza New York City 20
Dear Mr. McKeon:
I have taken the liberty of sending your request for tickets to the Inaugural Committee in Washington, since they (and only they) have charge of them.
I sent it to the special attention of an acquaintance there, so let us hope it is honored. I am sure the request will be respected if it is humanly possible.
In addition to the postcard, the envelope contained a letter and two tickets to the Inaugural Ball held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. on Friday January 20, 1961 at 9:00 PM. Blue check marks graced both tickets.
I finally had my proof. My grandparents did, in fact, attend President Kennedy’s Inaugural Ball. I then wondered why? As I mentioned my grandfather was pretty conservative. The more I researched the family history I think I found my answer. Both my grandmother’s parents were Irish Catholic immigrants. My grandfather’s grandparents were as well. I can only imagine what it must have meant to them to see someone from a similar background manage to get elected to the highest political office that our country has to offer. They must have felt truly inspired. And so should we.