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The entire United States of America came to a standstill on November 25, 1963. It was the state funeral of President John F. Kennedy, who had been fatally shot by an assassin three days previously. Needless to say, there were multitudes of photographers present in Washington D.C. that day. One of them raised his camera and caught the former leader’s three-year-old son making a touching gesture.

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The violent death of President Kennedy shocked the entire world. His two young children, John and Caroline, weren’t told the awful news until the night after the incident. But the little boy was barely old enough to understand at the time. In fact, his third birthday took place the very same day as his father’s funeral.

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The death of a parent is a very hard thing to process for one so young. According to Steven M. Gillon’s 2019 book, America’s Reluctant Prince: The Life of John F. Kennedy Jr., the little boy didn’t understand at first that his dad wasn’t coming back. After being told the news, he continued to ask the people around him to take him to see his father.

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Before the funeral , the two Kennedy children had been asked by their mother to place notes in their father’s coffin. She told them they should write about how much they loved him. Caroline, the older sibling, was able to write her thoughts and feelings down. But John, still so very young, only managed to scrawl an X.

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According to America’s Reluctant Prince, John accompanied his mother to a ceremony at the Capitol the day before the state funeral. But he was so fidgety and distressed that he had to be taken to a nearby office. Some agents then distracted him with miniature flags. The little boy asked for one for himself, another for Caroline, and then, “Please, may I have one for Daddy?”

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But on the day of the ceremony, perhaps John started to understand. Some birthday celebrations had already taken place, despite everything that had been going on. That morning, the little boy had “Happy Birthday” sung to him and was handed a toy helicopter as a present from Caroline. Then, however, he had to go outside in front of the whole world and attend his father’s funeral.

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John was, of course, dressed in clothing appropriate for a funeral – and back in those days, it was a dress-like outfit. Which meant that he and his sister Caroline wore much the same thing. This was because of the tradition of “breeching,” where young boys generally would wear gowns until they were around eight years of age.

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While at Washington’s St. Matthew’s cathedral for the Mass, John, unsurprisingly, began to cry and his mother calmed him down with a whisper. It couldn’t last, though. Throughout the ceremony the little boy was heard saying, “Where’s my daddy? My poor mummy’s crying and she’s crying because my daddy’s gone.”

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John was later taken to another room where he could calm down. To keep the little boy’s mind off the distressing things happening around him, the Secret Service agents asked him to perfect his salute. He’d almost grasped doing it with his right hand, but then had gone back to using his left. A Marine colonel took over the lesson and helped him get it right.

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The Mass was a difficult endeavor for the whole of the Kennedy family. During the service, the Bishop of Washington, Philip M. Hannan, read a passage from the Bible, as well as the Inaugural Address President Kennedy had once delivered. It was there, in St. Matthew’s, that the former leader’s wife, Jackie, finally let her guard down and cried.

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After that, the funeral cars began making their way to the interment at Arlington National Cemetery. The children, however, were thought too young to see that part of the ceremony. But before they parted ways with their mother for the day, photographers captured the siblings standing outside the cathedral, watching their father’s coffin go by.

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United Press International (UPI) photographer Stan Stearns managed to capture what took place in that moment. But then he immediately got in trouble with his boss afterwards. So convinced was he that he’d just created an image which would go down in history, he skipped the rest of the funeral and headed straight back to his office.

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In 2007 Stearns wrote about his experiences for the website The Downhold Project. “I made a decision to walk the film into the bureau, feeling I had the picture of the funeral,” he wrote. “I was supposed to walk with the caisson to Arlington. I knew we had photographers along the way and at least four at the cemetery. They could do without me.”

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Stearns went on, “When I walked in the office, George Gaylin [the Washington News Pictures Manager] almost had a heart attack. I have never seen a man that mad. He turned red, then white. Yelling and screaming that I did not go to Arlington. I kept telling him I had THE PICTURE of the funeral.”

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Yet that did nothing to placate Gaylin. “He was yelling that he had rolls and rolls of film from ump-teen photographers covering the funeral,” Stearns wrote. “While Harold Blumenfeld [Executive Editor for News Pictures] and Ted Majeski [Managing Editor for News Pictures] were trying to calm him down, Frank Tremaine [Vice President, General Manager for News Pictures] grabbed me by the collar and said: ‘You better have the picture of the funeral or you’re fired.’”

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Stearns continued, “Knowing it was going to be a big enlargement, and knowing my job was on the line, I went into the darkroom with fine grain developer to develop the film. Unheard of at UPI. It took 17 min. I could hear Gaylin pacing outside the door muttering. When the negative was washed and dried, I went to Gaylin’s desk.”

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Unsurprisingly, Stearns did not lose his job – far from it. “[Gaylin] looked at it and yelled, ‘He does have the picture of the funeral!’ He quickly showed it to Ted Majeski and Harry Blumenfield on his way to have it enlarged and printed,” the photographer wrote for The Downhold Project. “The rest is history. A WORLD BEATER for UPI.”

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In the immediate aftermath of the picture’s publication, Stearns got credit for taking it. “When the photo was transmitted, the credit was UPI/by Stan Stearns. Back then, that was almost unheard of. Reporters got a byline, photographers got zip,” the photographer wrote for the website. “The photo was used world-wide. Full page in some newspapers and magazines.”

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But these days, people might not necessarily know who took it. “Life [magazine] used it with no credit,” Stearns wrote. “I called the Life picture editor about the credit. He said [he] would correct it in the future… Well, in 1999 when JFK Jr. died, he [the picture editor] either had moved on or no one looked at the credit… The credit was Corbis-Bettman on the cover of Life and Time [magazines].”

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The Downhold Project website noted, “Other photographers, including New York’s Daily News did have the image, but they didn’t have what Stearns’ picture had. He used an ultra-fine grain developer that allowed more enlargement of the negative with less graininess. And he had a tiny highlight of sunlight under young John’s left eye.”

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That picture was of the little boy saluting his father’s coffin as it went by. It seems the short training session with the Secret Service agents and the Marine colonel had paid off: John did the salute perfectly. And the image of the three-year-old performing a grown-up action in honor of his deceased dad quickly became iconic.

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In 2013, during a fundraising event, ex-Secret Service agent Clint Hill talked to an audience about teaching young John to salute. The Marine colonel, he said, snapped to attention while announcing to the little boy, “THIS is how you salute!” It instantly worked on him. Hill told the crowd, “I’ll be damned. It took him 15 seconds.”

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But one other photographer that day also happened to get a picture of John saluting. This photograph made it to the front page of the Daily News under the simple, stark headline “We Carry On.” The author of this second image was Dan Farrell, and in 2013 he spoke to CNN about his experience.

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Farrell said he always knew the photo would be part of history. Of JFK Jr., he said, “His hand just went up very very quickly, and I got off one shot, and it was all over… I realized it was going to happen because Mrs Kennedy actually said to him, ‘Salute, John.’ […] He didn’t salute at first, and she told him again to salute, and he did. “

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Near the end of the CNN interview, Farrell said, “The Kennedy picture of the little boy saluting with his family, it’s gonna live forever.” Indeed, at one point there were even small figures of Caroline and John available to buy during the 1960s. The young girl’s was depicted in the coat she wore to the funeral, and her brother’s was saluting.

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Sadly, both Sterns and Farrell have passed away now. The former died of lung cancer in 2012, at the age of 76. His son, Jay, told The New York Times that his dad took many pictures of Jackie Kennedy throughout his life and so knew to watch her at the funeral. “My father had an incredible ability to anticipate a moment,” he said. “That photograph was a culmination of him knowing her.”

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Farrell died in 2015, aged 84. He left behind five children, a whopping 19 grandchildren and slightly fewer great-grandchildren – eight. And his obituaries re-quoted something he had said to the Daily News in 2013. The image of young John reaching his hand up to salute was, according to the photographer, “the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”

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And John F. Kennedy Jr. is, of course, also dead now. Tragically, he was killed in a light aircraft accident at just 38 years old. Carolyn, his wife, along with Lauren, her sister, were also on the plane, flying to a wedding in July 1999, with John himself at the controls. The craft then crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, and all three people on board were lost.

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As had been the case with President Kennedy, the whole nation mourned for John F. Kennedy Jr. Following his untimely death, a memorial wall was established where people could leave tributes. And some of the pictures and creations left there featured the famous image of the little boy with his arm locked in a salute.

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For most of John’s adult life, he never discussed the assassination of his father. Steven M. Gillon, the author of America’s Reluctant Prince, talked about that with People magazine in 2019. “It was a topic that John did not discuss. [It was] the only topic that was absolutely off-limits,” he explained.

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Gillon, who met John in 1981 at Brown University, told the magazine that the late President’s son could never fathom why people had such an interest in the assassination. “He couldn’t understand why people focused so much energy on it,” the author said. “He wanted to remember his father for the life that he lived, and that’s how he wanted others to remember him.”

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John later referred to his father’s death as “the one fundamental fact of my life.” He was even asked if he would ever investigate the assassination. But, according to Gillon, the former president’s son said that even if he spent the rest of his days doing that, “It would not change the the central operative fact that I don’t have a father.”

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It’s fair to say that the Kennedys have seen a lot of death. So much so, that for a long time there have been rumors that the family is cursed. Both John F. Kennedy Snr. and Jr. died before their time, of course. Bur the clan has seen the loss of many other members, too, including the former president’s Senator brother Robert. In 1968, he, too, was assassinated.

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Gillon believes that there never was a Kennedy curse, and that John Jr’s death was, tragically, his own fault. He definitely had legal permission to be flying on the night the plane went down. But, it seems, he didn’t really have the training for it. The National Transportation Safety Board would later label the official cause of the crash, “failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation.”

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In 2019 Gillon told InStyle magazine, “It’s just bogus, there’s no Kennedy Curse. You know the Kennedys are risk takers. President Kennedy insisted on an open limousine when he is going through Dallas, even though the Secret Service recommended otherwise. Bobby Kennedy had no Secret Service protection and waded into crowds. And John was reckless.”

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It pained Gillon to write about his old friend’s tragic mistakes. However, as he told People magazine, “It was [John’s] poor judgment that led to his death and the death of his wife and his sister-in-law. […] There’s no way around that…That is not easy for me to say. But when I wrote this book I decided my responsibilities as a historian superseded my responsibilities as a friend.”

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However, Gillon also believes that the young Kennedy’s reckless behavior throughout his life had understandable roots. For the author, it was a result of being part of such tragedy at an early age. “John experienced more death in his brief life than most people do,” he explained. “When you think about the trauma that John had, it’s not just his father’s assassination, it’s his uncle, who became like a father figure, and then Aristotle Onassis, who was his stepfather.”

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Gillon went on, “The trauma is compounded by the fact that John leaves the only house he ever knew, the White House. [The family] moved to four different homes in the year after the assassination. And then there’s the Secret Service, a constant reminder of what happened to his father and that his own life might also be in danger.”

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The author also spoke to a psychologist, he said, to try and understand John’s mindset throughout his life. “What I learned was that one of the ways people respond to that type of trauma is to seek out danger,” he explained to People magazine. “Because they realize life can be snuffed out at any minute, they want to live life to the fullest. At the same time, they’re drawn to danger and the possibility of further trauma.”

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Gillon then added that his old friend “had escaped death and danger so many times. I think John just always believed something was going to save him, but it just didn’t that night.” For lots of people, John F. Kennedy Jr. will always be that little boy in the photo saluting his father. Maybe that’s how he saw himself, as well.

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