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Filming the future president

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Marlin and Carolyn Tirpak reflect on the color footage Saturday of John F. Kennedy's 1960 visit to Tamaqua. Marlin filmed the future president, greeted him and shook his hand.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Marlin and Carolyn Tirpak reflect on the color footage Saturday of John F. Kennedy's 1960 visit to Tamaqua. Marlin filmed the future president, greeted him and shook his hand.
Published November 18. 2013 07:25PM

On Oct. 28, 1960, Marlin Tirpak grabbed his Dejur 8 mm camera and began filming a dignitary passing through his hometown.

But it wasn't his first choice of things to do that day.

His priority was to take photos of his newborn son Brian at Coaldale State General Hospital. But morning nurses weren't ready to allow him access, and so he hopped over to Tamaqua and filmed the arrival of Sen. John F. Kennedy.

Fifty-three years later, the Tamaqua man realizes he captured priceless footage of American history.

"But I didn't give it any thought until lately when my son said they're looking for Kennedy films," he said.

Tirpak intercepted the Kennedy entourage on West Broad Street at the Home Savings & Loan building, now the Tamaqua Area School District Administration building.

"I was enthused because it was the first time I was allowed to vote," said Tirpak, Union Street.

He then ran alongside Kennedy's convertible, using his height and sound physical ability to document Kennedy's ride through downtown.

He filmed as the motorcade passed in front of the Victoria Theatre, where "Jungle Cat" was playing.

Then it was down to the railroad tracks with throngs of fans lining both sides of the street.

"Kennedy had to sit down because he was almost pulled out of the car," Tirpak said.

That unique situation, in which Kennedy stumbles and almost falls, happened in front of what is now M&S Hardware and is captured on the Tirpak film.

Tirpak continued to film through the Five Points and onto Mauch Chunk Street, and finally, onto Pine Street as the motorcade disappeared northbound on SR309.

"It's something to see how close Marlin was allowed to be," said Marlin's wife, the former Carolyn Breinig.

"At one point by the comfort station I yelled 'Yo, Jack,' and shook his hand," said Marlin.

Today, Tirpak smiles when he recalls pinching pennies to buy his first camera. In a way, it was a major leap of faith.

Money was tight in 1960, but the Tirpaks were resolute about managing their budget to afford of an 8 mm camera for $135 and a Bell & Howell projector at $175.

"I was making $1.25 an hour working for Genetti's grocery store," Marlin said. "In fact, it was located where the Tamaqua TIMES NEWS office is today."

Luckily, the $40-a-month salary didn't prevent the Tirpaks from investing in equipment with the hope of capturing holiday events.

They never expected to film an icon of world history right in their hometown.

Marlin went on to work as a driver for UPS, retiring after 30 years. Carolyn worked for Purling Mills, where she once was photographed with Gov. Milton Shapp when he visited Tamaqua.

Tirpak's film is special because he used his physical advantage to leverage the best angles.

Tirpak is tall and strong, standing at 6 feet, 2 inches, with unusually long reach.

In fact, he's remembered for his role on the much-heralded 1957 Tamaqua High School basketball team. Coached by legendary Eli "Pinky" Purnell, the team became the first to win the Black Diamond League championship.

Last week, WNEP-TV sent a crew to Tamaqua, where they picked up a DVD copy of the film at Tirpak's Dutch Hill house. Marlin said they plan to show it this week.

The Tirpaks intend to make duplicate copies of the DVD. They want to present it to their children, Brian, Lake Hauto; Greg, Tuscarora; and daughter Kim Eckert, Auburn.

In a sense, the film represents a small piece of Kennedy's Camelot. And Marlin says he's delighted to have produced the footage and to have experienced a special event during a special time.

"I think we were blessed to have lived in the era we did."

Kennedy went on to win the election, becoming president at age 43.

Sadly, three years after his appearance in Tamaqua, Kennedy was assassinated while riding in an open convertible at Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas. The Nov. 22, 1963, tragedy stunned the nation.

On Friday, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death, the TIMES NEWS will take an in-depth look into his visit to Schuylkill County, including appearances in Tamaqua, Hometown and McAdoo, and how locals reacted to the news of the assassination.

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