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Nephew remembers JFK assassination's toll on politically connected Boston uncle

Posted by News staff  November 21, 2013 05:36 PM

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By Robert P. Connolly

I will always remember November 22, 1963, as the first time I saw an adult cry. And not just cry, but become truly distraught.

RPC-pic.jpgThe person in question was my granduncle, Robert “Patsy” Mulkern, who long ago belonged to a class of political professionals now probably extinct.

He was a “street guy,” someone who knew how to connect a candidate to the ward bosses and the precinct sign holders, with the factory workers and the Gold Star mothers – someone who knew where the votes were and how to get them.

The Boston Globe once called my granduncle a “sharp-witted, wise-cracking Old Frontier veteran,” and Kennedy biographer Thomas Maier described him as the “crusty pol” who “showed Jack how to work a crowd in taverns, hotel lobbies and street corners.” He was known as “the Mayor of School Street,” no doubt for the shoe leather he expended making his rounds from the State House to Old City Hall.

By all accounts, Patsy Mulkern was one of the insiders when John F. Kennedy first ran for Congress in 1946. He also was someone who could banter with and at times chide the future president.

When JFK turned up for his first day of congressional campaigning casually attired, my granduncle, according to the oral history he provided to the John F. Kennedy Library, said: “For the love of Christ, take those sneakers off, Jack. You think you’re going to play golf?”

I remember hearing stories like that during the early 1960s. Apparently Patsy Mulkern was someone who could get away with being … blunt … with Jack Kennedy. In fact, the stories would suggest that JFK rather liked being on the receiving end of an old-school Boston pol’s sharp needle and wit. Others might not have been as appreciative, and by the time he was elected president, the relationship with the Kennedy camp was not quite as close, though many who visited the White House during those days would come back saying the president had interrupted a conversation to ask, “How’s Patsy?”

On the night of November 22, 1963, when my parents and I arrived at my granduncle’s apartment on West Concord Street in the South End, the relationship’s dents and dings were long forgotten.

“They got him, they killed Jack,” my granduncle said between sobs. “Someone told me they shot him but that he might be all right. I asked him where he was shot and when they said the head, I told them, forget it. He’s gone.”

My granduncle’s nickname “Patsy” lingered from the days when he boxed under the name “Irish Patsy Mulkern.” A contemporary once described him as “a good featherweight with a dandy left jab but not much of a punch.”

But his Irishness was on display that night as his deep sorrow gave way to lighthearted, dearly held reminiscences of his days on the campaign trail with the war hero-turned-politician.

There were stories of the millionaire who never had a dollar in his pocket, the impulsive, fun-loving young man who would suddenly suggest a late-night dash to Hyannis Port just because ice cream and strawberries awaited in the refrigerator, and of the charming candidate who played especially well with young female voters, each one of whom, as my granduncle would put it, “thought she was going to be Mrs. Kennedy.”

I remember my granduncle’s respect for the young Kennedy’s campaign work ethic – something he highlighted in his Kennedy Library oral history.

“Oh, he was a good worker. Jack was a good worker … I told him the hard way was the best. He said, ‘I don’t know about the best, but I know it is the hard way.’”

Certainly, many Americans recall November 22, 1963, as one of the most tragic days of their lives – and you didn’t have to know JFK to feel that way.

But if you did know him and had joked, campaigned, argued and shared ice cream and strawberries with him, it must have been a day of immense and crushing sorrow. That’s certainly the way it looked that evening, as a street-wise political veteran and former boxer shed many tears.

I remember my granduncle that night saying nothing was ever going to be the same, and for many people, that surely was the case. After Robert “Patsy” Mulkern died in 1967, it was written that “politics killed him.”

Hyperbolic though that might be, there was probably some truth to the notion -- and while politics in a generalized sense may have taken its toll, you could without doubt say that one day in particular sapped his spirit and broke his heart.

Robert P. Connolly is vice president for communications at the University of Massachusetts and a former Boston Herald State House bureau chief

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