JFK Jr., 1960-1999

By The Editors / July / August 1999
November 12th, 2007
He dressed in silly hats. He played ball with fraternity brothers. He handed in papers at the last possible moment. When he failed to pay parking tickets, his car was towed. When he was short of change, he scrounged for coffee money.

For weeks after the airplane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. '83 fell into the sea on the night of July 16, the country - the world, even - found itself suddenly grief-stricken at the loss of yet another Kennedy, who perished with his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and sister-in-law Lauren Bessette. On the campus that Kennedy remembered fondly even as he went about the business of editing his magazine, George, those who had known him recalled someone not altogether different from many of his peers: an intellectually curious American history concentrator, a socially conscious citizen, a natural actor, a thoughtful friend, a fun-loving athlete who played rugby for two seasons and regularly joined pick-up Frisbee games on the Green, and a son hosting visits from his mother, who just happened to be the wife of a martyred President of the United States. "His own sense of grace, sense of ease, and social poise allowed him to project an air of naturalness," says a former teacher, associate professor of history Mary Gluck. When meeting someone for the first time, he always introduced himself, seeming never to take for granted that everyone already knew who he was.

But the celebrity he tried to keep in check was unavoidable. Strangers sought directions to his dorm room. Photographers descended onto campus to cover his Commencement. "He was America's prince, and he was treated as such," says fraternity brother and housemate John Hare '83, remembering the time the entire audience turned to look when he and Kennedy walked into a Providence movie theater. Through it all, Kennedy retained his sense of humor. "He had a way about him that was grace personified," remembers James Barn-hill, professor emeritus of theatre arts.

As an amateur actor, Kennedy landed parts in campus productions of such plays as The Tempest, Short Eyes, and Playboy of the Western World. "He took direction well," says Barnhill, "and he improvised well." In Playboy, Kennedy won the lead, a role that cast him as a meek underdog. Starring opposite him was Maura Murphy '82, who shortly after his death recalled the last lines of the play, when her character howls, "I've lost him! The only playboy of the Western world!" "Now that we've all lost him," she says, "memories of our self-conscious young selves struggling to put on a play and avoid feeling like jerks around John Kennedy become more painful and more precious. To succeed at either challenge, we had to learn to trust John. And he showed us we could." Professor of Theatre, Speech, and Dance Don Wilmeth, who directed Playboy, says that, although Kennedy had the right charisma for acting, he never seriously considered it as a career. "I think he knew," Wilmeth says, "that his persona would be too difficult to overcome."

Kennedy was also committed to social issues at Brown, particularly to pressuring U.S. companies into divesting themselves of South African holdings until that country abolished apartheid. After visiting South Africa during the summer after his freshman year, he created a student organization around the issue with his friend Randall Poster '84. Aided by Kennedy's political connections, the group brought notable speakers to campus, including Helen Suzman, a South African parliamentarian, and Andrew Young, who had recently left his post as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations but had not yet been elected mayor of Atlanta. At last month's U.N. tribute to Kennedy, Young spoke of seeing him at Brown: "He wore his father's sport coat," he said. "Here was this tall, skinny, nineteen-year-old preparing himself to fill his father's shoes." Despite his campus activism, Kennedy resisted a political future. When political science professor Ed Beiser asked if he wanted to run for office, he replied, "My mother would kill me!"

After a rocky start, Kennedy became a "solid, competent" student, in Beiser's words. His first college paper, written for Beiser's freshman seminar, earned a failing grade. "He was really shaken," Beiser remembers. "He said, 'What am I going to tell my mother?'" It was a much more academically confident Kennedy whom Mary Gluck remembers walking into her office dressed in cut-off shorts to hand in his final college paper, which focused on Wordsworth. "He said, 'Just hot off the press,' " Gluck recalls. "I'll never forget the enormous pleasure." She awarded him a B-plus; he wondered what he could have done to earn an A.

After living in a dorm and then his fraternity house, Phi Kappa Psi, Kennedy moved his junior year to a house on Benefit Street with four roommates, who, over the next two years would at various times include Hare and Christiane Amanpour, who later became CNN's senior international correspondent. "You're growing up together and no one's putting on airs," recalls Hare, who remained a close friend. "With old friends you establish in college, there's almost nothing you have to say to each other or do over an extended period of time to remain friends. That's incredibly hard to replace."

"If you really wish to honor John," says Richard Wiese '81, one of Kennedy's fraternity brothers, "think of some of the things he stood for," such as humility and humanity. "John was human just like everyone else, with his hopes, fears, anxieties, passions, and disappointments. It would be a mistake to make him into something he was not. And it would probably dishonor him."

At the time of his death, Kennedy was preparing to return to Brown; he had agreed to serve on the University's advisory committee on communications and public relations and was due to attend his first meeting later this year.

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