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Memories of a great career

Published May 22. 2010 09:00AM

One of the fringe benefits of aging is the cornucopia of memories we accumulate and cherish.

Unlike many pieces of trivia, which come and go during a productive lifetime, there are certain indelible events whose footprints intensify with time.

As a journalist, I have had many:

Some were the result of tragedy - a truck loaded with dynamite blew up near Marshalls Creek in Monroe County in 1964 killing six, injuring 13 and causing more than $1 million in property damage.

Some resulted from news articles I wrote such as the series on Pocono second-home land-development abuses in 1972 that led to sweeping federal legislation which continues to protect millions of prospective property-owners.

Some came from accolades from my peers - a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and the naming of the newspaper in Easton, where I was editor, as one of the 14 best small-city daily newspapers in the country in 1989 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Some came from the excitement of interviewing well-known celebrities and personalities, such as Princess Grace of Monaco (about six months before her shocking death in 1982), singers Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Gloria Estefan, Glen Campbell, Dion, Frankie Valli and Neil Sedaka, Chief Justice Warren Burger, actresses Sophia Loren, Gina Lollabrigida, Meredith Baxter and Celeste Holm, actors Jimmy Stewart, Ricardo Montalban, and Peter Graves (of Mission Impossible fame) and Ken Howard (of The White Shadow series), ice skater Peggy Fleming, comedienne Roseanne Barr, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former world heavyweight boxing champ Larry Holmes, comedians Bob Hope and George Burns, author James Michener, who helped me with my master's thesis on the 1960 presidential election, 60 Minutes essayist Andy Rooney, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo and every president of the United States between John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush, the recent ex-president's father. My Bush interview came when, as vice president, he hosted other journalists and me at a White House luncheon following a presidential news conference with President Ronald Reagan.

It's interesting when I announce the lineup of presidents I have interviewed that most express amazement that the list includes Kennedy. "You interviewed JFK?" comes the breathless question.

Yes, and this is one of those indelible memories:

In September 1963, I had just been promoted to program, news and sports director at WVPO, a small 250-watt daytime-only station in Stroudsburg, but I had not yet assumed the duties. I was completing my last two weeks of teaching high school French and English at Washington, N.J., High School.

I had worked part-time at WVPO ever since I was a junior in college and continued to do so when I became a high school teacher. When my legendary mentor, Program Director Joe Whalen, left to take a job in Dayton, Ohio, a colleague, John Kippycash (air name John Randall) was named to succeed him. Less than a year later, Kippycash received a fantastic offer from WABC in New York City, and I was chosen to replace him.

In early September, we received word that President Kennedy would be visiting Milford, Pa., in neighboring Pike County, on Sept. 24 to dedicate the Pinchot Institute for Conservation.

Milford, the county seat of Pike County, is about 35 miles northeast of Stroudsburg, just south of Port Jervis, N.Y. We applied for credentials and permission to interview the president.

We were told that the president would not hold one-on-one interviews with members of the news media, but he would hold a press conference before the ceremony.

A colleague of mine, Sally Ferrebee, a free-lancer who had a popular mid-morning program on WVPO, accompanied me to Milford for the press conference and dedication ceremony.

When we arrived, a presidential press secretary announced to the more than 60 members of the news media - including national network media representatives - that the president would hold just one one-on-one interview. The lucky journalist would be chosen from a random drawing. Sally and I filled out file cards. We figured that with both of our names in contention, it would improve our odds from about 60 to 1 to about 30 to 1.

I could not believe my good fortune when my card was chosen. I was by far the youngest - and most inexperienced - journalist among the press corps. If looks could kill!

It was determined that I would interview President Kennedy for no more than 10 minutes following the dedication ceremony. It was a warm, early-fall day, with afternoon temperatures in the high 70s. That plus high stress and tension caused me to sweat profusely.

What was I going to ask the president? Would I make a fool of myself? When I heard that Pennsylvania Gov. Bill Scranton, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, U.S. Sen. Joseph Clark and other dignitaries were going to sit in on the interview, I was even more intimidated.

I didn't have much preparation time, because I had to cover the press conference for my radio station and get some tape for newscasts later that afternoon and the next day.

As I think back on Kennedy's dedication remarks and reviewed my notes from that monumental day, I can't help but conclude that what went around came around. Kennedy was talking about a national conservation program just as President Barack Obama is today.

What Kennedy said on that warm September day in 1963 could have been uttered by Obama today. ``Today's conservation movement must embrace disciplines unknown in the past," Kennedy said. ``It must marshal our vast technological resources; it must concern itself with nuclear energy and the preservation of all scenic treasures."

Then Kennedy indicated how he saw his administration's role in the public-private equation: ``Government must provide a national policy framework for this new conservation emphasis, but, in the final analysis, most of what needs to be done must be done by the people themselves," Kennedy said.

"The American people are not by nature wasteful. They are not unappreciative of our inheritance, but, unless we as a country, with the support, and sometimes the direction, of government working with state leaders, working with the community, working with all of our citizens, we are going to leave an entirely different inheritance than the one we found."

After the dedication ceremony and the handshaking, President Kennedy was led to a room in the Pinchot Institute building where I had been seated - and sweating - for about 15 minutes.

At 46, Kennedy looked even more handsome in person than he did on television. His self-assurance and broad smile lit up the room.

" hear you're the winner of the drawing," Kennedy said as he extended a hand. I stood and shook hands with him and the other dignitaries who filed in with him. "Thank you, Mr. President," I stammered.

"Is it OK if I tape this?" I asked. "Of course," he answered.

I had rehearsed how I would break the ice and warm him up without sounding corny. "I always wonder when I listen to Vaughn Meader's comedy routines what you think of them," I said. (Meader developed a cottage industry imitating the president and came out with a long-playing record album entitled "The First Family," which sold more than 1.5 million units.)

"I love them," Kennedy said. "Actually, he sounds more like Teddy," said Kennedy, referring to his brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.

During the interview, I asked about the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, George Wallace's election as governor of Alabama and the new governor's controversial segregationist views, and Kennedy's upcoming trip to Texas to launch his bid for a second term as president.

He said he was looking forward to visiting Texas, especially Houston and Dallas. Kennedy and his vice president, Texas native Lyndon B. Johnson, did not do particularly well in the 1960 election, especially in Dallas. The decision to make a high-profile visit to Texas was made about three months earlier, in June.

Little did I or anyone else suspect that less than two months later - Nov. 22, 1963 President Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas.

(Bruce Frassinelli, a native of Summit Hill, lives in Schnecksville and is an adjunct instructor of Political Science at Lehigh Carbon Community College.)

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