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Issue Date: November 2008


Crashing JFK’s Inauguration

When they were college students, future Cleveland city councilwoman Mary Zunt and future congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar sneaked into John F. Kennedy’s snowy inauguration —and his speech inspired their lives’ paths. 
By Mary Zunt
I went to Washington determined to attend the inauguration of Jack Kennedy, the first president I could vote for, with only the assurance of a hotel room. Mary Rose Oakar, then a classmate of mine at Ursuline College, traveled with me, and nine other friends were to meet us there.

By 10 o’clock that night, it was obvious they were all staying with us. Every room in the city was booked.

A blanket of snow, peppered with stalled cars and deserted trucks, was countered by men on the back of 10-ton trucks sprinkling salt by hand. People walked. Adlai Stevenson deserted his car, stuck on the freeway, to thumb a ride on a semi into the city. People weren’t attending events. Seats needed to be filled. It was ideal for crashers.

The following day, Mary Rose and I went to the historic Park Sheraton in Woodley Park to see if we could attend the Governors of the States reception. It was a snazzy event by invitation only. We’d crash; there was no other way.

The best way, we figured, was to attach ourselves to those who were invited. Mary Rose walked in through the hotel kitchen on the arm of a Navy violinist, and I followed a Kennedy family member from the front entrance, unnoticed.

While the Navy band played “Hail to the Chief,” we stood three feet from Jackie Kennedy, JFK, Lady Bird and LBJ, all in evening attire for Frank Sinatra’s gala that night at the Armory.

Puckish in our success, nothing seemed impossible. We convinced the Navy violinist to drive us back to our hotel, wait until we dressed hastily and then take us to the Armory. I hobbled into the gala on one brown silk stiletto and one black pump, mismatched during my quick stop. By now, friends had gathered. A man in hip boots and black tie asked, “Lookin’ for tickets?” He was offering 10 seats that would normally run $10,000 for free.

We brash college students barreled in to see the stars of the decade — Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ethel Merman, Bette Davis, Harry Belafonte, Milton Berle, Ella Fitzgerald, Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter Lawford — still in rehearsal duds. Their director wouldn’t chance them getting stuck in the snow.

Our luck kept getting better: One of our friends had taken up with a handsome state attorney general. On Inauguration Day, he offered a lift to the inaugural in his limo. En route, we made a pit stop for Chivas Regal to ward off the blistering cold. When we arrived at the Capitol entrance, he handed us one general-admission ticket.

Mary Rose and I dashed into the throng, hugging the snow fence farthest away from the ticket-taking security guard. I held my ticket high, passed it to Mary Rose and the two of us pressed on.

We climbed over snowy hurdles up the platform stairs opposite the Capitol, leaving a midshipman yelling, “Hey, you can’t do that!” Many people had opted for TVs in warm hotels; we chose seats behind Jack Parr, the host ofThe Tonight Show.

In between sips of Chivas, we heard Cardinal Cushing, bishop of Boston, pray. When Robert Frost read, the sun popped out to hit his thick glasses and made it difficult for him, then 86, to see. Seated in front of us, not 30 feet away on the podium, were Jackie; JFK’s mother, Rose and father, Joe; President Eisenhower and Mamie; and President Harry Truman and Bess, new Vice President Lyndon Johnson, watching as Chief Justice Earl Warren swore in our new president, who refused to wear an overcoat on this icy day.

We slowly froze.

There were many messages in John Kennedy’s acceptance speech, but the words, “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” renewed my pledge to dedicate a part of my life to my country.

He was speaking to our generation 48 years ago. We heard his call. Some of us went on to work with the Peace Corps, others walked with Martin Luther King. Many of us decided to run for office.

In 1973, I was elected to Cleveland City Council, along with Mary Rose and seven other new councilmen. All had worked for John Fitzgerald Kennedy. His message was that strong — it changed our lives.

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