‘Dad and JFK: The Early Years’

Published 12:28 pm Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Editor’s note: Below is the first of a three-part series in which local attorney Lee Stockdale shares stories of his father’s friendship and professional association with President John F. Kennedy. Look for the second and third parts of the series on Thursday and Friday.

It was the Depression. Like many, Dads family was so poor they didnt have enough to eat. Dad’s father had died a few years earlier. Dad Grant Stockdale was 16 when his mother and two younger sisters got into a relatives car and left Dad in Mississippi. His mother and sisters went to live with family in Alabama. The Alabama relatives could feed her and the two girls, but not a big, growing boy. Dad was left in Mississippi to fend for himself. He never talked about it.

Dad played high school football and in 1935 received a scholarship to the University of Georgia. He arrived in Athens early and decided to hitchhike down to Miami. Someone picked him up and they talked football and the man asked Dad, Why dont you come to the University of Miami and play for the Hurricanes?

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Dad tried out, got a scholarship, and played halfback for four years for the Miami Hurricanes. It was at the University of Miami where Dad met and married Mom (later Abie Proudfoot, deceased, of Tryon).

Dad was a close friend of George Smathers, a Miami lawyer excited about politics.&bsp; George was a Marine in World War II and had already come back. Dad was a Marine Intelligence Officer still on Okinawa. George wrote Dad and told him he wanted to run for Congress, and he wanted Dad to be his campaign manager.&bsp; Dad came back and ran Georges campaign and George won.

Smathers had his office on the same hall with Jack Kennedy, another freshman Congressman. In his Senatorial Oral History, Smathers said:

When I got elected to Congress, I came here and opened an office in the Old House Office Building. My administrative assistant that I brought from Miami was a guy named Grant Stockdale. Stockdale fell in love with Jack Kennedy and Jack Kennedy loved him. [Jack] was not well, he was in pain most of the time. When theyd ring the bells for us to go over to have a vote or have a quorum call, this poor guy would have a hard time getting over there. So the way it would happen is Id go by and holler, ‘Cmon Jack, lets go.’ He would lean on me, or Stockdale, or Ted Reardon, and wed all kind of march over to the floor of the House of Representatives where he would cast his vote, or vote present, or whatever was the order of the day.

Dad began a friendship with JFK that lasted a lifetime. They both loved politics, football, golf, had great senses of humor, and fought in the Pacific.

Back in Miami, Dad campaigned for, and was elected to, the Florida state legislature. He introduced the Anti Ku Klux Klan Bill, the first bill of its kind in Florida or any southern state.&bsp; It required KKK members to take off their hoods in public so their faces would be clearly visible in order that each member, so robed, can be unmistakably identified.&bsp; The bill initially failed, but became law at the next session.

Jack, now a U.S. Senator, married Jackie, and Mom and Dad went to the wedding with George, one of Jacks ushers. Over the next few years, JFK underwent a series of back operations and he spent months at the Kennedy home in Palm Beach. Dad drove up from Miami to see him on a regular basis.

Jack was writing a book, which was a subject of discussion during Dads visits. Finally, it was finished and Jack was trying to decide on a title. He told Dad hed narrowed it down to either Profiles in Courage or Courage in the Senate and asked Dad what he thought.

Dad said, Well, Chief, its about courage in the Senate, so Id call it Courage in the Senate. Whereupon Jack instantly wrote across the manuscript, Profiles in Courage. (You can imagine them both laughing.)

After Jack announced his bid for the presidency, he named Dad director of the Florida State Committee to Elect John F. Kennedy. Dad was also a member of the Democratic National Finance Committee and actively campaigned for Jack around the country.

Dad was calling JFK the president long before the election. His letters were addressed to Mr. President.

For example, in 1959, he wrote: Mr. President: My friends and I caught your Face the Nation show Sunday afternoon and want to tell you once again you knocked the ball over the fence.&bsp; I dont think there was even one question that didnt show you up in good favor with the American people.&bsp; They cant stop us!&bsp; Keep up the good work. Florida #1 Agent for Kennedy, Grant.

Again, before JFK was president, Dad gave him a watch and on the back, Dad had inscribed: President of the United States John F. Kennedy, from his friend Grant. Dad also gave Jackie a jeweled American flag pin. &bsp;

Jackie sent Dad a letter that said, among other things: I only hope that after all your touching generosity and hard work for Jack we wont fail you and will wear them where they should be worn 1600 you know where. &bsp;

The Chief wore that watch at his inauguration and throughout his presidency. (In 2005, Omega, the company that made it, purchased the watch back from a collector for $350,000.)

When the Chief was elected president, there was tremendous happiness at the Stockdale house. Jack asked Dad what he wanted to be, by way of a political appointment. Dad told the president-elect he didnt want anything more than a handshake.

Then one afternoon a long line of cars pulled up in front of our home in Coral Gables. The president-elect came to spend the night with us. Dad and the Chief and a number of men went out on the screened porch and talked.&bsp; I followed them out, sat cross-legged on the floor, listened, and ate an orange.

Early that evening all the adults started congregating in the front hall, getting ready to go out. At some point I asked John F. Kennedy, What can a little guy like me do to be president?&bsp; He said, Learn your history and mind your mother.

That was a conversation my mother enjoyed reminding me about.

Editor’s note: Part 2 of this series, which tells of Stockdale’s time as the American Ambassador in Ireland, will appear in the Thursday Bulletin.