JFK’s crutches, school desk in new exhibit

Amy Anthony
Associated Press

Boston — – There’s a set of his crutches, and his old wooden school desk still bears his initials — “JFK.”

Those two items are among many never before displayed in “Young Jack,” a new exhibition at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum that celebrates the president’s early years.

The exhibition focuses on Kennedy’s military service — a transformative time in his life — and his years at boarding school, where he exasperated his teachers and parents with his lack of discipline and penchant for causing trouble.

“As a young person, some of those personality traits — his style, his elegance — weren’t there yet,” Museum Curator Stacey Bredhoff said at Thursday’s exhibition opening. “But we see the seeds of his personality here. His keen intellect, his enormous charm — all of those are here in his early life.”

At Choate, a private boarding school in Connecticut, the young Kennedy was the ringleader of a group of troublemakers. Nevertheless, he charmed the school’s strict headmaster, who later said Kennedy would get away with some things “just on his smile.”

In a December 1934 letter to his father, Kennedy wrote that he and classmate Le Moyne “Lem” Billings, who would become a lifelong friend, were doing so poorly that they had “definitely decided to stop any fooling around.”

The desk, which is believed to have been used by Kennedy in his dorm room at Choate, bears the future 35th president’s initials. Billings told museum officials it would have been characteristic of his mischievous friend to carve his monogram into things.

The exhibition also focuses on Kennedy’s service in the Navy. Kennedy was the commanding officer of the patrol torpedo boat PT 109 that was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer in August 1943 off the coast of Australia.

Two of the 13 passengers died instantly. Over the next few days, Kennedy led the remaining men to an island nearly four miles away, gripping the strap of his injured shipmate’s life jacket in his teeth as he swam to tow him to shore. There, two native men showed Kennedy how to carve a message into a coconut husk, which eventually led to the sailors’ rescue.

The ordeal was a defining moment for Kennedy, showing his ability to lead under great duress, Bredhoff said. It also shaped his views on war and peace.

“It stopped any romantic notions he had about war,” Bredhoff said.

Kennedy returned home from the war physically and mentally exhausted, suffering from chronic back pain that required him to use crutches. But Kennedy had suffered from an array of medical ailments since boyhood, a detail that he and his family hid from the public and that was only revealed recently.

“He grew up with the idea that you don’t complain about your physical pain,” Bredhoff said. “Clearly (the crutches) were used, although he was very high-spirited and positive. Think about the courage it took to project that.”

“Young Jack” will remain open year-round as part of the library and museum’s permanent galleries.