After 50 years, Lawrence resident vividly recalls serving at President Kennedy’s funeral
Most people over a certain age can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned the news 50 years ago the President John F. Kennedy had been killed.
But for Lawrence resident Reaumur Donnally, the most vivid memories are not of that day, but of the funeral Mass held three days later on Monday, Nov. 25, 1963.
Thumbing through a book of photographs from the assassination, “The Torch is Passed,” which was later published by The Associated Press, Donnally pointed to one picture taken outside the cathedral doors and said, “There I am.”
In the foreground is Cardinal Richard Cushing, a Kennedy family friend from Boston who celebrated the requiem Mass that day. And directly behind the cardinal, Donnally said, is himself at age 12, one of five altar boys at the funeral.
“My twin brother and three other of my classmates were the altar servers,” Donnally said. “We just thought OK, we’ve got to serve the Mass. It’s another funeral. But you’ve got a lot more people and an important person who died.”
His story appears to be one chapter in the Kennedy saga that was lost, at least to official history. The official program from the funeral services that day does not list the altar boys. And neither the church nor the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library have records of those names.
But Donnally says he still has vivid memories of those events, as well as numerous photographs and other mementos from the Kennedy years, and he says he will never forget the emotion and drama from that weekend in November 50 years ago this week.
Family ties to Kennedy
Donnally was in seventh grade in 1963, attending Calvert School in Washington, D.C., the parochial school attached to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, which is not far from the White House.
He was one of dozens of boys in that school who occasionally served as altar boys, but he said he was probably chosen in part because of his father’s long association with Kennedy.
His father, Dr. Reaumur Stearnes Donnally, had known Kennedy since they were classmates at Harvard, the younger Donnally said. After graduation in 1940, Kennedy joined the Navy while the elder Donnally went on to medical school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Years later, Dr. Donnally set up his medical practice in Washington, D.C., and, according to a United Press International report, treated both Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline as patients for about 10 years before he was elected President.
Among the many mementos that Donnally keeps of the Kennedy years is a photo from the inauguration. It shows the new president is taking the oath. Outgoing Vice President Richard Nixon is seen on the left side of the photo and behind him, Donnally said, is his father.
“He had several people as patients who were famous,” he said. “But he was very low key about everything. He never really said much.”
He also keeps a letter that Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s personal secretary, wrote to him years later in which she recalled that event and the friendship that the two men maintained.
Assassination and funeral
On the day of the assassination, Donnally recalled, a feeling of apprehension haunted the streets of the nation’s capital as people wondered openly whether the United States was under attack.
“Interestingly, I remember talking to my father, and it was the only time I ever saw my father cry in his whole life,” he recalled. “When Kennedy was assassinated, he was downstairs in his office, sitting in his chair crying.”
“But then for the actual funeral itself, the Mass, there were people in Washington, D.C., lining the streets and climbing the lampposts and hanging out of buildings to see everything,” he said. “It was just incredible.”
According to the published accounts of the funeral, Jacqueline Kennedy requested a “low Mass” in which the priest speaks, rather than chants, most of the service. But Donnally said it had some of the feel of a high mass because there were five altar boys instead of two.
He said one detail of the Mass that stands out for him was the image of Martin Luther King Jr. running up the steps at the last minute.
“I remember that vividly because they almost closed the door and he got in at the last minute,” Donnally said. “He had problems running up the steps. Of course, his famous (“I Have a Dream”) speech was only four months before, in August.”
Inside, from the altar, Donnally could look out into the audience of about 1,200 people and see the faces of some of the most famous and powerful people in the world at that time.
“You could look out and you could see Peter Lawford (the actor married to Kennedy’s sister Patricia), and you could see the family and Charles de Gaulle and Robert Kennedy and all the people,” he said. “Haile Selassie and so many world leaders.”
“I thought I did a good job as a server that day, and Cardinal Cushing complimented us after the service about how well we did,” he said. “Even though there were television cameras and lots of people, you kind of knew they weren’t focused on you as an altar server. They were focused on the family. So it never really made you nervous or anything. You wanted to do a good job.”
Looking back after 50 years
Donnally, now 62, went on to a successful business career. He and his family moved to Lawrence in the 1990s when, as a vice president of Kohl’s, he helped launch the retail chain’s entry into the Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska markets.
But the memories of that day in November 1963 stay with him today.
“When you’re 12 years old, you just think about how it affects you as a 12-year-old, and I guess I connected to the children and the wife,” he said. “I just thought about the kids losing their father and the wife losing her husband and how sad that was.”