Elections of a lifetime

  • Jim Cahillane SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 10/20/2020 11:22:49 AM

The day I turned 21, my dad drove me to Hamp’s City Hall to register to vote as a Democrat, like him. My free act was grounded in grade school civic lessons about what makes an American citizen. At last, I was an adult with grown-up decisions ahead. This one was owed to dinner table talk about FDR passing Social Security, ending the Depression, with government as a force for good. Democrats were for the people!

In 1959, my father, Northampton Mayor James “Big Jim” Cahillane, ran for a fourth term and lost. I don’t recall working on his campaign. Politics became dad’s calling when he won his city’s 1953 Democratic primary among four Irish-heritage men. Of the lot, only dad was born in Ireland. He’d left County Kerry for Northampton in 1930.

Once here, he proceeded to make new friends and a name for himself. Blessed with a big smile and can-do attitude, he fought his way upward at a time when Irish Catholics were seldom the flavor of the month — in business or in politics. By 1950, his interests were a Richfield gas station, Goodyear tire store and a Hudson (soon to be American Motors) new car dealership.

It was a decade of possibilities. Our dad and Sen. Jack Kennedy became political friends and supporters of each other’s dreams.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. My class had just graduated from St. Michael’s High School. President Truman chose to lead a United Nations effort to defend the nation of South Korea. Constant rumors of a new draft ruined many a young man’s summer idyll. At 17, I was clueless enough to think that international events happened to someone else and went off to St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.

Truman’s Korean War changed my life. The rest of that decade was a blur of hyperactivity: 1951 to ’55 in the Air Force. The final two years were spent in England, where I met my future wife.

In 1955, I married my fiancée, and my dad was reelected mayor. Looking at our wedding photos, I’m reminded that many of the guests were political friends unknown to the bride and groom. All in all, it was a family shindig in celebration of Jim Jr.’s return and my English bride’s arrival in America.

In 1956, Mayor Jim was a delegate to the Democratic Convention in Chicago, where he voted for Jack Kennedy to be vice president and failed. Democratic delegates chose Sen. Estes Kefauver to run for VP on a ticket with Adlai Stevenson against President Dwight D. Eisenhower. They lost.

I was almost too busy to notice because the automobile business was picking up its postwar pace. George Romney led the new American Motors Company by pushing his compact car Rambler models as he criticized the “gas-guzzling dinosaurs” of Detroit’s Big Three.

Today’s futuristic electric vehicles were then a sci-fi fantasy.

In 1955, a number of Hamp’s ambitious young men formed a local junior Chamber of Commerce chapter. We “Jaycees” had our regular meetings at Rahar’s Inn on Old South Street. After meetings, we’d stop for a beer and cheerfully argue Democratic and Republican politics. In those halcyon days of local two-party politics, everyone had a voice.

Maureen and I were outgrowing our Hampshire Heights apartment, welcoming three boys just in time for the 1960 presidential donnybrook.

Massachusetts Sen. Jack Kennedy was running hard against Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard M. Nixon. It soon developed into a mesmerizing knock-down-take-no-prisoners affair.

The CBS network had a bright idea to sponsor the first live debate between two major candidates; a political prizefight. Millions tuned in to witness a cool Jack Kennedy spar with a perspiring Dick Nixon. TV was the winner as American politics evolved into showbiz for the masses.

October 1960: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was under threat by just being in a Georgia jail cell. Against advice, Sen. Kennedy made a concerning phone call to King’s wife, Coretta. JFK risked losing southern votes but won new friends among the African-American community.

American voters had never chosen a Catholic president. Pamphlets were being spread in some churches that Jack’s Catholicism would make a President Kennedy subject to the Roman Pope.

In an electrifying act of political courage Jack Kennedy asked for an invitation to speak at a Houston, Texas ministerial conference. YouTube has his speech in full, and it’s worth viewing before you go to the polls.

Sixty years into the future, like questions of religious loyalty echo in the news. A confident Jack delivered his history-laden speech to overcome falsehoods. He may not have won many Southern Baptist votes, but he earned credit for facing his critics. Kennedy said if his conscience came in conflict with presidential duties, he would resign the office.

Our hero Jack set a new standard. JFK’s lilting Irish sense of humor, smiling visage, war record, eloquence and belief in the ideal of government serving the people earned my 1960 vote — as did Joe Biden in 2020!

Author, poet and columnist Jim Cahillane is a Northampton native and longtime contributor to the Opinion Page. He hopes that all of his fellow citizens will exercise their vote. He lives in Williamsburg.

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