HYANNIS – Is it a pilgrimage? Who’s to say? But consider this: For many across the land, the word, “Hyannis” holds a certain degree of mythology.
“When you think of Hyannis, you think that’s Kennedyland.” said Maryann Saddlemire, a dairy farmer from Knox, New York. She was visiting the John F. Kennedy Memorial on Hyannis Harbor with her daughter, Margery Saddlemire, and her granddaughter, Jacqueline Saddlemire, who is named after Jacqueline Kennedy.
Cape Cod is many things, especially on a blue sky afternoon at the peak of summer. But for tourists visiting the JFK Memorial and the JFK Museum, Hyannis as a place represents a most optimistic time in history. Myth and reality are both here.
“I think that was our generation’s royalty,” said Maryann Saddlemire.
This place, known as Hyannis – and especially the JFK Memorial and the JFK Museum, draws people looking to discover, relive, or remember. It also brings out a willingness for people to talk passionately about history and politics, both national and personal, and the 35th President’s role in both.
“When I think of Cape Cod, I think of the Kennedys,” said Melissa Gavlak, from Cleveland, Ohio, who was on vacation with her husband and in-laws. She stood at the JFK Memorial. She had already visited the JFK Museum.
“Even though I grew up in the 1980s, the conversation about the Kennedys was still part of my family,” she said. “I think it might be an Irish Catholic thing. We grew up idolizing the Kennedy’s The idea of coming to to the Cape and not going to the Kennedy museum, I would feel like I was missing out on something from our trip.”
And Elliott Herman, a psychologist from Charleston, South Carolina, said that “the Kennedys represented everything that was new and wonderful.” He was visiting the JFK Museum. Like everyone old enough, he remembers exactly where he was when he heard the president had been killed – drafting class in the 7th grade.
“He was my favorite president,” said Jeannette Gavlak of Lodi, Ohio. “He was young, enthusiastic, and even though he was wealthy, he had the middle class at heart.”
The Memorial has a small circular pool with a fountain and a fieldstone wall with a carved medallion profile of John F. Kennedy. It is an understated memorial overlooking the harbor, showing appreciation for the Cape Cod view that the 35th US President so enjoyed during his life.
The museum in downtown Hyannis features many enlarged family photographs, especially from Cape Cod, and old video, plus quotes – and a statue by sculptor David Lewis of Osterville out front.
“Putting together the Memorial and the Museum,” said Melissa Gavlak, “and my own experience for a week here visiting, I understand the allure of this part of the country.”
Andrew Wakelee, from Philadelphia, said, “I’m a history teacher, so I have kind of a special interest.” He said he has compared JFK with President Barack Obama, for his 12th grade classes.”They are both a new generation. I drew a lot of similarities between them.” (President Obama also vacations every summer in this area – on Martha’s Vineyard. It is a ferry ride away.)
It is hard to fathom. This mythical figure from the history books or, if you are old enough, the news, lived around the corner a few miles away – right over there. Well, at least he vacationed there a lot. Over there, that’s the family around the corner. You know, locals.
It wasn’t just John F. Kennedy, of course. The museum makes that abundantly clear. This was his family, a smiling vigorous clan with a slew of frozen-in-youth faces that would go on to have great and tragic lives. The whole thing is so familiar as to be part of our grand national narrative.
He lived over there, around the corner.
“When you come to the Cape, you’ve got to go see the Kennedy compound,” said Maryann Saddlemire. Unable to get near that private
neighborhood in Hyannisport, she came instead to the JFK Memorial.
Tourists flock to the Memorial and to the Museum for personal reasons that are also universal – American, if you will. “I’m just remembering, looking at the pictures,” said Herman.
History has reduced the John F. Kennedy story into two distinct aspects that are carried by visitors – the youthful promise, and the tragic end.
“For many people, when he was shot that was the beginning of such turmoil for the country,” said Herman.
“You still have to wonder what America would be like today if that hadn’t happened,” said Jeannette Gavlak.
While most visiting the Kennedy landmarks were something like history buffs, a group of friends visited the Memorial because they saw it as they were driving by. “We just ran into it,” said Gerardo Cientanni, 19, of Lynn. “I don’t know a lot about him. I know he was from this area. Obviously, he was President. And I know he was assassinated.”
Sierra Todisco, 19 of Peabody, said she also knew that Kennedy was assassinated. “We didn’t cover much else in class other than that he was assassinated,” she said.
— Brian Tarcy