WESTERLY — Like many young Catholic families in the 1960s, the Aherns felt a special connection to the 35th president of the United States.
Like the Kennedys, the Aherns were Irish Catholic. Like the president, the late Tom Ahern, the patriarch of his close-knit clan, was an Ivy Leaguer — a Brown grad. Ahern, a member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, was also interested in politics, and growing up, the five Ahern children — Leslie, Gregory, Lauren, Thomas Jr., and Joyce — listened to their mom, the late Joyce Ahern, and their dad discuss the topics of the day.
The Aherns also had a local connection to the Kennedys through their friendship with the Markham family. Dean Markham was married to Susan Moore, the granddaughter of the Westerly manufacturer George C. Moore. He was also Robert F. Kennedy’s roommate at Harvard.
When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960 and summoned his brothers and their friends to Washington to serve in his administration, the Markhams packed up their children and their belongings and moved from Westerly to McClean, Va., to be near Hickory Hill, the home of Robert and Ethel Kennedy.
When the Markhams left Westerly, the Aherns organized a farewell party. It was a “New Frontier” party, said Leslie Ahern Brown, the oldest of the Ahern children. The Ahern kids grew up hearing stories about the Kennedys. One of those stories was about the time their parents sat with a young Sen. John Fitzgerald Kennedy at the Harvard-Yale football game they attended with the Markhams. Gregory Ahern, the elder of the two Ahern boys, remembers his parents talking about that game, especially about the fact that the young senator’s well-known back problems were so obvious.
“He kept dropping his program but his back was so bad he couldn’t pick it up,” said Ahern, who today works as a communications professional for the Investment Company Institute, “and they kept picking it up.”
“My parents always told me he was a great guy,” said Ahern. “He was an important part of our landscape growing up.”
Fifty years later, the Kennedy assassination remains remarkably clear for the two oldest Aherns.
Brown, a writer, called Nov. 22, 1963, a day that was somber, stunning and surreal.
“It really was the day the music died,” she said. “All the optimism, elegance, and fun stopped on that terrible November day. JFK brought a new sense of involvement to politics. The New Frontier seemed limitless. After the assassination, and those of Martin Luther King and RFK, disillusionment replaced all that hope.”
“It was a huge story in my family,” said Brown, who was a ninth-grader at the Pine Point School at the time and remembers how the students gathered and were told what happened in Dallas.
“Like everyone else, my family spent the weekend watching history in the making on our black and white TV,” she said. “There were so many poignant, memorable moments. Jackie did such a phenomenal job of redoing the Lincoln funeral; the riderless horse; Taps; the eternal flame; little John saluting; Jackie and Caroline kissing the casket; the Navy Hymn.”
For Gregory Ahern, the surreal nature began a week before the assassination.
Young Greg, a sixth-grader at the Tower Street School, had driven to Florida with his dad. “My father was driving my grandmother to Palm Beach for the winter,” he recalled. “It took us four days and we arrived in Palm Beach on that Friday before.”
Ahern said that he and his father and grandmother were in a shop on Ocean Boulevard when someone called to go outside and see the president.
“They said the president was on his way,” Ahern recalled earlier this week. “We walked outside and saw his motorcade.”
“He was the biggest celebrity in the world,” said Ahern. And here he was, driving down the street, right in front of them, an arm’s reach away.
According to the Nov.16, 1963, edition of the Palm Beach Post, the president had come to “inaugurate his third season of visits to the Palm Beach Whitehouse” and to visit Cape Canaveral. Law enforcement cars and motorcycles escorted the president from Palm Beach International Airport to the family mansion on North Ocean Boulevard.
And there stood 12-year-old Gregory Ahern from Westerly, watching the president drive slowly by right in front of him in a powder blue Lincoln Continental.
“I remember how tanned he was,” said Ahern, “and how handsome...like a movie star. And I remember how long his hair was and that it was sort of reddish.”
The president looked right at Gregory and he spoke.
“He said, ‘Hey there, son, how are you doing?’” recalled Ahern. “And he was smiling.”
Exactly one week later, Gregory Ahern was back in Mrs. Morrison’s sixth grade class at the Tower Street School.
He had just given a report to his class about his experience meeting the president of the United States — an experience he now calls “one of the seminal events in my lifetime,” when the news came from Dallas.
And while Ahern certainly remembers feelings of shock and sadness, he remembers mostly his concern and how, as a 12-year-old, he tried to piece together the unthinkable bits of information swirling in his mind.
“I mostly remember wondering what his family was going to do for Thanksgiving,” he said.