Twenty feet from the Kennedys

The Kennedys, Johnson and Stevenson

12/6/1962 Kennedy Foundation Dinner in the Hilton ballroom. Left to Right:U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, President Kennedy, First Lady Jackie Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson

This is the story of how my father came to be twenty feet from President and Jackie Kennedy. Like all Southern stories, this one begins a while back. I’ll be brief.

My father’s father,Wilmer Sperry Hunt, came of age in the 1890s as the son of a doctor in poor little Ripley, Mississippi, where opportunities were scarce. When he was nineteen, Sperry, as my grandfather was called, was invited to Austin to live with his sister while he studied law at the University of Texas. After receiving his degree, he moved to Houston, opened a law office and married my grandmother, a bright, well-to-do girl named Lucy Brady, who once bragged to me that she had a (corseted) nineteen inch waist on the day of her wedding. Ouch.

Born in 1903, my father Wilmer Brady Hunt was the only boy of three children. By all accounts he grew up to be a funny young dandy who was as comfortable at a black-tie party as he was hunting and playing cards. In 1928 he too received his law degree from UT. He returned to Houston where he joined his father’s firm and married a lovely, artistic woman named Eugenia. Five years later, in the midst of the Depression, my father took over the firm, following Grandpa’s unexpected death. What I skipped over were the four years from 1921 to 1925 when Dad earned his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. My father took me to DC in early December of 1962. It was the only trip my father and I ever took alone.

Judge Jeana Sperry Brady and Stephen

My parents, Wilmer and Eugenia Hunt; my young nephews and me (right) at our home in Houston in 1962

I remember landing at Dulles only because the pilot parked the prop jet at the edge of the airport. Evidently there were some issues with the gate. Walking down the stair truck, we discovered our light wool suits and overcoats, perfect for Gulf Coast winters, were a bit thin for the chill of DC. We boarded a bus which took us a good distance to the spanking new terminal, which President Kennedy had dedicated only three weeks earlier. [For historical perspective I’ve included a link at the bottom of this post to a Wikipedia article entitled “1962 in the United States”]

It was late afternoon when the taxi swung beneath the broad portico of what was then the Statler Hilton hotel, a few blocks from the White House.  A very tall black man in a dark, elegant topcoat opened the door and welcomed us. I remember him now for what happened several nights later. A bellman took us through a large glass foyer that sheltered the lobby from the cold. The lobby itself was of plain, white stone as I remember. Wide carpeted stairs ascended to a second-floor landing where a set of double doors opened to a ballroom.

The next morning Dad bought us wool mufflers that made walking around in the breezy forty-degree weather comfortable.

I recall a surprising number of events from this trip so long ago. Most I remember as snapshots; a few other with more clarity. One does remember capital cities, where so many of the buildings are designed and staged to appear epic and symbolic.

The second and more important reason I remember these days so well was that my father was a memorable man. Just over six feet tall, he had piercing blue eyes. He stood very erect in those days, as you can see from the photograph. He was not generally confrontational, but when confronted, he we utterly fearless, as I will write about in a later piece. What is most remembered by the many people who still speak of him, was his humor. He had a way of punctuating a moment that never failed to make people laugh. Further, he displayed a lawyer’s economy of speech that made him an excellent joke and story teller. Let me offer this absurd example of a story he told several times over the years:

My father become a judge early in the year I was born. On the day of my birth, the tale begins, he told his bailiff to bring all of the men he’d put in jail into the courtroom. (There were none, by the way. He was a civil court judge.). Once the jailbirds were assembled, the story goes, he asked if this was anyone’s birthday. No one spoke. Dad said that was a shame, for he was going to release anyone who had the same birthday as his new son. Hands shot up around the room.

Early in our trip we visited the Capitol Building and, of course, the Washington Monument. But it was the Lincoln Memorial that most awed me. Stunning for its simplicity as much as its grandeur, the temple, as it can only be described, honors the plain man who saved the nation and freed the slaves at a personal cost no smaller than the men he sent to their deaths. As I approached the Lincoln statue, I recall my father holding back a bit. Though a hundred years had passed, the Civil War was a ghostly presence in the South. Enoch Newton Hunt, his grandfather, had been a Confederate surgeon. Many Southerners still grumbled. Grandpa grew up resenting the Federal Reconstruction troops who left Mississippi the year he was born. My dad, like most Texans of his day, did not possess the vitriol belonging to the Deep South in those desperate days of the struggle for civil rights. A student of history throughout his life, he always spoke of the Civil War in a solemn manner, as one does of a great tragedies.

Over the next couple of days we visited the National Art Gallery and the National Cathedral of the Episcopal Church, both at the insistence of my mother. This is not her story, but it’s worth mentioning that Eugenia Hunt was an artist, which made her feel a little isolated from the rest of us. As the final of her four children – the caboose, as my father called me – I was her last hope of having an artistic companion in the family. Further, unlike my Catholic father and siblings, she was an Episcopalian. At some point during the premarital preparations, she promised to raise her children as Catholics. In the end, she reneged on the last one and took me to the Episcopal church “for company,” as she said. That was my mom.

One morning was reserved for a visit to the Supreme Court. Well before the trip, my mother told me that Dad wanted to be presented to the court, a process that would end in his being able to argue before it. He had already filed a petition and collected letters of recommendation from certified attorneys in Houston. Grandpa, he explained, had received his own certificate on one of his visits to see Dad in Washington.

Court was not in session that day. The huge white marble room was almost completely empty.  At the back of the chamber stood a field of red theatrical drapes behind a row of white columns. Before the columns was a plane wooden desk perhaps forty-feet wide. Nine black, high-back chairs sat behind the desk. Dad placed me in one of the empty rows at the back of the gallery. Carrying a soft valise, he approached a man seated at a small desk to the side of the wide table. Their conversation was loud enough to hear but too reverberated to understand.  Moments later the man handed my father a piece of paper which he placed carefully into the valise. He returned to collect me, and we left without speaking of the event.

In the years since, I’ve come to believe that that trip was in part designed to instill in me a sense of awe and tradition, that might lead to a third attorney in the family.  My sisters were mothers, by then. My older brother, was well on his way to becoming a biologist. As with Mom, I was the last hope.  I respected and admired my father and what he did. I recall watching countless courtroom dramas on television with him and thinking how important his job was. He told me his opinions of how trials of the day were decided. I know now, as I knew then, that Dad sincerely wanted me to chose my own path, whatever that might be. And I’ve come to think that this trip was Dad’s way of showing me how happy he was with his career in law. And it did.

As I recall, it was on our final day in Washington that we took the White House tour. Jackie Kennedy had taken it upon herself to restore and redecorate her new home. For structural reasons the house had been gutted and reconstructed during the Truman years, and was in need of redecorating. A year later, on Valentine’s Day of 1962, my parents and I watched as Jackie  Kennedy conducted the American public on a televised tour of the White House.  Being escorted through the mansion was thrilling for me, not so much for the tour itself, but because we, as citizens, had been invited into the home of our President.

One of the best parts of the trip happened the last evening. We took a cab to dinner. Traffic was heavy as we approached the Treasury Building, which brought a smile and a story to my father’s lips.

His father, Dad said, had visited him at college. It was the early days of the Roaring Twenties. Dad said he enjoyed squiring Papa around town, as he put it. They too visited all the monuments – certainly the Lincoln Memorial, which was completed during those years. They saw famed Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators pitch to Babe Ruth’s Yankees. At one point, my grandfather lamented that it was too bad that Prohibition was on, as he’d like to have something to drink. According to my father, Grandpa felt it was his duty as an attorney to be an example and did not drink.

Dad said they could, in fact, have a drink. He knew of a speakeasy nearby.

“But it’s the nation’s capital?” Grandpa said surprised..

Dad promptly took him to a warehouse joint and bought a pint of whiskey. To my grandfather’s amazement it only a few blocks from the Treasury Building, which housed the principal enforcers of Prohibition. Shocked, disgusted, and likely pleased, Grandpa returned to Houston and had a barrel of whiskey placed in his attic forthwith.

Over dinner Dad told me that he would often take a ship to and from college.  The route, he said, followed the Intercoastal Waterway stopping at ports like Miami and Charleston.

“Why not take the train?” I asked, feeling certain that was faster.

“The twelve mile limit,” he said with a grin.

I had to smile picturing my father at nineteen on a ship, just outside of US territorial waters, drinking and gambling the night away.

Leaving the restaurant, we discovered snow falling on the dark streets.  I was thrilled. I had only seen snow once – in 1960 when four inches  fell on Houston. We made snowmen that day which melted completely in hours. I had never seen snow at night. I still remember the flakes floating in the streetlights that night in DC.

As our taxi approached the Hilton, we could see a policeman diverting traffic onto the cross street. The driver let us out at the side door. Entering the hotel we discovered a crowd in the lobby standing six-deep behind a rope line separating the lobby from the entrance. Two policemen stood off to the side.

My father asked a man at the back of the crowd what was happening.

“The President is coming,” he said. “There’s a big Kennedy party upstairs.”

The dinner turned out to be the first Kennedy Foundation Dinner.

Dad looked at me and smiled. Two years earlier the two of us, Dad’s cousin Chan and Mom gathered around a television in Sausalito, California watching the Democratic Convention. Dad was for Lyndon Johnson but happily backed John Kennedy when he got the nomination.

Being over six feet tall, my father could see clearly over the crowd in the Hilton lobby. At five-five in those days, I stared at a wall of backs. Determined to see the man who had fought the Japanese, funded the space race and stared down the Soviets,  I carefully slithered and jostled  my way to a tight spot between two men and the velvet rope. I had a clear view of the entrance through the front window and the glass foyer. A man in a black suit stood by the front door. The doorman snugged his gray gloves and stared keenly up the street.

President Kennedy Snowy Limousine

President Kennedy on a snowy night in 1961

A moment later a black Lincoln limousine rolled up to the curb.  The doorman leaned forward and opened the rear door. Out stepped Jack Kennedy in a smart black tux. He tugged quickly at his shirt cuffs and gave the doorman a smile. The doorman smiled back and said something. Before the President could answer, Jacqueline Kennedy appeared in the doorway wearing the white dress and matching jacket. The doorman offered the First Lady his hand which she grasped with her fingertips. She rose from the car and walked gracefully between the two men who were by then engaged in friendly conversation.

Jackie waited for a moment, gave a little shiver and walked into the hotel through the front door being held opened by the man in the black suit. She continued through the foyer and into the lobby where she stopped directly in front of me, no more than twenty feet away. She glanced over her shoulder at her husband, lifting the opposite heel as she did. Seeing that he was still talking to the doorman, she turned back and waited.

And there she stayed, poised with her weight on one foot, in what I can only describe as a moment of propriety. Was she annoyed at her husband for ignoring her in the cold to talk to a stranger? Was she upset at having to wait exposed awkwardly to a rope line of onlookers? Or was she perhaps pleased Jack had found a moment of levity between the stresses of the day and the upcoming function? Nothing was revealed in those dark eyes.

A moment later Jack appeared with his charming smile and perhaps an apology. Jackie took her husband’s arm. The couple mounted the stairs and disappeared into the ballroom where a photographer snapped the picture at the top of this post.

We flew home the next day. I never did become a lawyer. I never really chose a career at all. I’ve lived a mostly happy life among my family and friends doing what I enjoyed and what paid the bills. I consider myself very, very fortunate. And no small part of my fortune was being the son of the man who took me to Washington, DC in 1962.


Jackie and Johnson

Above: Video of Jackie Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson and others watching President Kennedy’s speech at the Kennedy Foundation Dinner the evening of 12/6/1962.

Wikipedia article entitled 1962 in the United States



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