- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2010

CONCORD, N.H. | Among the 1.5 million condolence letters sent to President John F. Kennedy’s widow after his assassination in 1963 were more than two dozen from Jane Dryden, a dogged and dramatic 11-year-old who churned out a letter a week for six months straight.

“I know that you hate the whole state of Texas. I do to,” she wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy from Austin in January 1964. “I wish I lived in Washington, D.C. where maybe I could maybe see you standing on your porch. I am determined to move there as soon as I can. I would feel safer there.”

Given the overwhelming volume of mail — 800,000 letters in the first seven weeks alone — most of the condolence letters were destroyed. But at least one of Miss Dryden’s notes ended up among the 200,000 pages that were sent to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, where they sat largely ignored until historian Ellen Fitzpatrick decided to write “Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation.”

The book, released last week by HarperCollins, includes more than 200 never-before published letters divided into three categories: Vivid recollections of the day Kennedy was assassinated; letters that express views on society, politics and the presidency; and personal experiences of grief and loss.

Eighth-grader Mary South described learning that the president had been shot just as she sat down to play the church organ at her Catholic school in Santa Clara, Calif.



“I tried to tell myself he would be all right but somehow I knew he wouldn’t. … the tears wouldn’t stop. The slightly damp keys were hard to play but I offered it up that the President might live,” she wrote.

In return for her letter, she received a small card printed with the words “Mrs. Kennedy is deeply appreciative of your sympathy and grateful for your thoughtfulness.”

“Getting that back felt like: She saw this. Jackie saw this,” Miss South, whose married name is Mary Certa, said in an interview Thursday. “I felt good that I had done something. I just wanted her to know how upset we were and how helpless we felt.”

When one of Miss Fitzpatrick’s researchers called and read her letter, “I started to cry all over again,” said Mrs. Certa, 60, of Campbell, Calif. “It was like I was right back there in 1963.”

Miss Fitzpatrick was at the Kennedy library researching a different book when she asked to see some of the condolence letters in hopes of getting a sense of how Kennedy was perceived by Americans in his own time. As soon as she started reading, she was hooked.

“It was like the roof came off the building, the walls dropped away, the floor came out from under me. I was absolutely floored by what I’d begun to read,” she said Friday. “I have been teaching American history for 30 years, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a collection as powerful and that represented so many ordinary people speaking from the heart about their views about American society, and politics, and the president.”

Miss Fitzpatrick, a University of New Hampshire professor, soon discovered why the letters had never been published: She would have to get permission from each writer before including it in the book. But after she whittled down her list of favorites from 3,000 to 240, only five of the 220 or so she was able to track down declined to be included.

“There have been so many books about the Kennedy assassination. We’ve heard from the experts, we’ve heard from the conspiracy theorists, we’ve heard from people in the Kennedy administration, but here are the voices of those voiceless, everyday Americans,” said Miss Fitzpatrick.

Barbara Rimer was 15 when she wrote “I promise you that I will give body and soul to perpetuate the very ideals President Kennedy lived for.”

Now dean of the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, Mrs. Rimer didn’t even remember writing to Mrs. Kennedy until contacted by Miss Fitzpatrick.

“When I read it, I thought, ‘Wow, was I naive!’ I don’t know how many people write letters to the president today or to Michelle [Obama], but it seemed incredibly naive,” she said.

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