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Thornton W. Burgess & JFK

Fifty years ago today, Thornton Burgess, then 89, learned along with the rest of the world the devastating news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed. Several weeks later he described his thoughts in a Dec. 8, 1963 letter to his Canadian friend, Stuart Trueman, editor of the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. “Shock follows shock,” he wrote. “We are still rather numb from the tragic loss of President Kennedy...we have lost an able and good man, a brilliant man, who had he lived might well have become a truly great man.” But Burgess was no stranger to the horror of presidential assassinations. “[Kennedy] is the third President to be assassinated within the span of my lifetime,” he told Trueman. “I was a small boy when Garfield was shot and still have a vivid memory of the feeling of desolation that filled me as I heard the tolling of the village bells and saw the flags at half mast.” (1) Burgess had been seven years old living in Sandwich, Massachusetts when Charles J. Guiteau shot President James Garfield on July 2, 1881. He was twenty-seven when President William McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz on September 6, 1901 and died eight days later. In fact, all four American presidential assassinations impacted Burgess’ life, for the dark shadow of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination only nine years before the author’s birth surely fell upon his childhood years in a New England town that had lost forty men in the Civil War. Whether or not they ever met, Thornton Burgess and JFK knew of each other and were clearly mutual admirers. Rose Kennedy mentions in her autobiography that her son John’s favorite Burgess book was The Adventures of Reddy Fox. A few years ago Gene Schott, executive director of the Thornton W. Burgess Society, was telling visitors to the organization’s museum in Sandwich, now closed, about Kennedy’s fondness for the author’s animal stories. A woman in the group interrupted his talk with her own anecdote. Her father was a close friend of the president, she said. Knowing Kennedy’s fondness for Burgess’ animal books, her father had visited Thornton Burgess, then in his late 80s, at the Mary Lyon Nursing Home in Hampden, Massachusetts to obtain an autographed and inscribed copy of Reddy Fox for him. When he delivered the signed book to Kennedy in the White House, she said, the president immediately sat down in his rocking chair and began to read Burgess’ story of a headstrong young fox who had many lessons to learn. (1) Information provided by the University of New Brunswick, Harriet Library.

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