Attendee says Robert Kennedy emerged from brother's shadow at 1964 event

Last updated: March 15. 2014 8:08PM - 4192 Views
By Joe Healey jhealey@civitasmedia.com

U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy speaks at the 50th Anniversary of the Greater Pittston Friendly Sons of St. Patrick banquet on St. Patrick's Day 1964 at the former Mayfair Supper Club in Laflin.
U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy speaks at the 50th Anniversary of the Greater Pittston Friendly Sons of St. Patrick banquet on St. Patrick's Day 1964 at the former Mayfair Supper Club in Laflin.
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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified former Congressmen Joe McDade and Dan Flood as state representatives.
PITTSTON – U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy boarded the Caroline an hour late with his head hung low.
It was St. Patrick's Day 1964 and he had just visited his brother's grave with former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Ireland Ambassador Thomas J. Kiernan. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated 4 months earlier.
Shamrocks in shape of a cross were planted at the grave site.
“Bobby” as he was often called, flew out of Washington, D.C., on his family's plane to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. He was a speaker at the 50th anniversary of the Greater Pittston Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Dinner at the Mayfair Supper Club in Laflin, one of his first speaking engagements since the death of his brother.
Fifty years later, as organizers of the 100th Greater Pittston Friendly Sons dinner roll out the green carpet Monday to welcome another Irish Democratic stalwart, Vice President Joe Biden to their affair, a man who flew on the Caroline that day in 1964 said Robert F. Kennedy emerged from his late brother's shadow after his visit here.
Somber trip, raucous welcome
John Cosgrove, 95, a Pittston native who was being honored by the Pittston Friendly Sons with a Certificate of Distinguished Service, had planned to drive to Pittston from Washington when he received a call from Edwin O. Guthman, Robert Kennedy's right-hand man and press secretary.
“He asked if I'd like to travel with Kennedy aboard the Caroline,” Cosgrove said.
Cosgrove agreed and the air contingent met at Butler Aviation, the private airplane terminal at Washington National Airport.
“The General,” as RFK was called by key staff, was an hour late because he was held up at the cemetery.
“And when he arrived, he barely said hello,” Cosgrove said.
Bobby and a few staff members went back to a small, private part of the plane, with an electronic typewriter on a table, where 'Pappa Joe' did his work, Cosgrove said.
Also aboard the plane was U.S. Rep. Dan Flood, U.S. Rep. Joe McDade, Ireland's Ambassador Thomas Kiernan, two reporters, the Rev. Joseph F. McNamera, who was stationed at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., a brother of John McNamera, a Friendly Son and employee of noted local businessman John Kehoe.
“We didn't see him again until we were approaching the Avoca airport,” Cosgrove said. “He came out and he looked out the window – there were some snow flurries – then he saw the crowd.”
“He asked why the crowd was there. I said, 'They're there for you.'”
At first Kennedy didn't believe it, Cosgrove said. “He never expected anything like that.”
“He said his hair was messed up and asked if anyone had a comb,” Cosgrove said. “So I loaned him one. But his hair just got messed up again when he stepped off the plane and the wind was blowing.”
He also stepped off the plane and was swarmed by a cheering crowd of over 2,500 people, including many women and teenagers, according to a report in the Wilkes-Barre Record. FBI agents had a tough time getting the Attorney General through the crowd.
Kennedy appeared to enjoy the tumultuous welcome and at one point when authorities tried to push back some of the crowd, Kennedy told them it was all right. It took authorities 10 minutes to get Kennedy to the car.
Thousands line streets
Before the dinner, Cosgrove was a guest of Ermino Cefalo at a reception at Echo Diner on state Route 315. A few close friends and members of the media attended.
During that time, Kennedy headed to Minooka in South Scranton, to break ground for the John F. Kennedy Public School. Scranton Police estimated the crowd there to be over 3,000. He gave a brief address and chatted with some students, who were dismissed early from school.
“When my brother was campaigning, he used to say, 'Always remember who got you out of school.'”
He also addressed the crowd.
“I'm delighted to see you here, whether you're our kind of Irish or our kind of Poles,” Kennedy said, referring to Democrats.
He was then whisked away and brought to Mayfair Supper Club in Laflin. Thousands of residents lined the streets, cheering from Minooka to Dupont.
The event at the Mayfair was sold out. More than 500 people were in the audience, a far cry from the 63 who were present on March 17, 1914 at L.P. Harter's Dining Room on 32 North Main Street in Pittston, where the initial St. Patrick's Dinner was held by the Irish-American Society.
To carry Kennedy's remarks live, WNEP-TV ran a cable all the way from the Mayfair in Laflin to their headquarters in Avoca, said Michael Clark, a Washington-based consultant and Pittston native, who was a 20-year-old in the audience that day.
Kennedy addressed the gathering briefly, keeping his remarks light and conversational, according to a news report. He recalled humorous tales concerning the last visit his late brother made to Ireland. He told the gathering he couldn't slight the people of Pittston by failing to visit with them because “you're our kind of Irish.”
“He told a lot of the sure-fire stories that his brother told, about happy times,” Cosgrove said. “And the audience ate him up. They loved him.”
Clark said even some men were crying after his remarks.
A message from Ireland
Then U.S. Rep. Daniel J. Flood, the principal speaker, used the occasion to combine the contributions made by the persons of Irish ancestry with the necessity to use these contributions to keep America strong.
Flood discussed the spirit of St. Patrick and told the audience it has been woven into the fiber of American greatness today. He called for continuing U.S. military and economic strength.
“Golden Anniversary Greetings” were read from the third president of Ireland, Éamon de Valera.
Relayed by Kiernan, de Valera's message said:
“Greetings and congratulations to the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick of Greater Pittston, Pennsylvania, on their 50th anniversary. We, in Ireland, are proud of the great contribution that our people in America have made to the growth, development and defense of the great Republic of the West. I wish your organization, its members and friends, ever increasing influence and success. Beannacht de oraibh!”
Kiernan also offered the group his personal wishes, and presented a copy of a pictorial book of John F. Kennedy's June 1963 trip to Ireland autographed by De Valera.
The program also included a supplemental listing of the previous 49 dinners, officers for each year and a list of distinguished guests and entertainers for the annual affairs, and a listing of early Irish families of the Pittston areas entitled “The Long Green Line.”
John C. McNamera, general chairman for the dinner announced the Pittston Friendly Son's would donate $300 for the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston.
De Valera's message was delivered to Paul Melvin, the president of the Friendly Sons, by Cosgrove.
Cosgroved honored
Cosgrove himself was an honoree that night.
He was presented with the Certificate of Distinguished Service, which is currently displayed at the Pittston Memorial Library.
Cosgrove's certificate read, in part, “He has, in all phases of a very active and useful life, brought honor to his Irish parentage, to his native City of Pittston and to his adopted city of Washington.”
Cosgrove said Kennedy couldn't stay long because he was due at another Friendly Sons dinner at the Hotel Casey in Scranton. On his way out the door, Kennedy whispered something into Cosgrove's ear and everyone wanted to know what the Attorney General told him.
“Everybody thought it was something dramatic,” Cosgrove said. “But all he said was 'I'll see you at the airport at 11.'”
But he was a very different Kennedy that night than the one in the plane on the way down, head sagged and depressed.
“He came alive that night,” Cosgrove said. “He was so somber in the plane, then he came alive. And when he left, he was so happy.”
A 'rejuvenated' RFK
After he left the Mayfair, Bobby was greeted by about 10,000 people on his way to the Hotel Casey. Addressing the Friendly Sons in Lackawanna County, he called on fellow Irishmen to extend a hand to those “who struggle for freedom today as Ireland struggled for a thousand years.”
During the Scranton dinner, a group of University of Scranton students paraded in front of the head table with signs that read “Let's Keep the Johnson-Kennedy Ticket in 1964” and “Mr. President, please ask Bobby to be Vice President.”
Kennedy appeared indifferent. When asked about it later, he said “I appreciate it, but I think it's out of place.” When asked if he'd accept the vice presidential nomination if President Lynden Johnson offered it to him, Kennedy responded “I haven't made up my mind what I'm going to do.”
Kennedy was held up at the Scranton dinner because Bishop Jerome D. Hannon's speech went long. He arrived at the airport one hour late, but in extremely high spirits. On the plane, he was talking, smoking and laughing, Cosgrove said.
The Rev. McNamera had planned to stay in NEPA, but was having such a good time rolling with the Kennedy crew, he flew back with the group, then flew back to Avoca the next day.
“He really enjoyed being with the VIP,” Cosgrove said. “We all did.”
“It was really the first time (Kennedy) was having a good time since his brother died,” Cosgrove said. “It was on his trip to Pittston and Scranton that the political power was transferred from one brother to another. He became a political power onto himself.”
Once the plane landed, Kennedy offered Cosgrove a ride back to his home, about 13 miles away.
“He gave me a ride home,” Cosgrove said. “I'll never forget that day. To see him so sad when he boarded the plane earlier that day, almost in a trance, and to see him so rejuvenated at the end, it was really something.”

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