In my elementary school’s main office hung a portrait of President John F. Kennedy. My father had taken the photograph while he was covering JFK for The Miami News during the president’s time here in March 1962. I was impressed. But what was more impressive was that same image hung in my childhood home in Hialeah. There was one difference: Ours was signed, “To Charles Trainor, with warm regards, John Kennedy.”
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There was another bond that united the two prints. On Nov. 22, 1963, I was in Miss Addington’s third-grade class at John G. Dupuis Elementary School in Hialeah. Early that afternoon an announcement was made that the president had been shot and had died while on a trip to Dallas. We all were dismissed from school. We didn’t talk much as we headed home across the school field, and I’m not sure how much we understood that this day would resonate in history.
As I entered my house my mother was crying on the couch, my father’s portrait of Kennedy on the wall near the dining-room table, always impressive to guests. My parents were proud to have a connection to the popular, charismatic president — our strong Irish heritage. My mother was born in Dublin, and I still have on my bookshelf a photograph of my father’s grandmother’s grandmother, who came from Ireland to this country through Ellis Island.
That afternoon, my father’s photograph of Kennedy was delivered to our doorstep, published on the front page of The Miami News, Miami’s afternoon newspaper. It took up almost the entire page with a simple headline, “The Man.” There was one column of type on the left side of the page written by Bill Baggs, the editor.
That day, I told my mom that I was going over to my friend’s house. She said, “No, you will stay home today and pay respect to the late president.”
Over the years the portrait has graced the walls of our family’s homes as it was handed down, the strength of the photograph almost creating the presence of another person in the room.
Here’s the story of how the photo was taken and came to be autographed by the president:
On March 10, 1962, my father was assigned to cover Kennedy at a fundraising event at the Fontainebleau hotel on Miami Beach. Kennedy was sitting at a long dinner table, in formal wear, next to his close friend Florida Sen. George Smathers.
That day, my father was trying out an early version of a 300mm 2.8 lens — a monster for its time. I think the lens caught Kennedy’s eye because the president is looking straight down the barrel of it, inquisitively. The setting, his expression, my father’s lonely shot made it look almost as if it were a private portrait sitting, even though it was at a dinner table with scores of people around the president. It just came together in a serendipitously special way.
In 1988, when The Miami News folded, Pete Cross, a former director of photography at the Miami Herald, which was in the same bayfront building, was wise enough to salvage the lens my father used to take Kennedy’s photograph from the equipment locker room. The lens came in a specially made wooden Miami News case, now a family heirloom.
And how did my father get President John F. Kennedy to sign the print? Smathers, who was there with Kennedy that night, helped. Later, when Smathers saw the image, he asked my father for a copy and took it to the White House, where the president signed the mat surrounding the print. The signature has been authenticated.
Here’s the sad ending: Only a few prints of this photograph have survived — and my father told me he lost the negative.
Charles Trainor Jr. is a Miami Herald photographer. His father was a Miami News photographer from the mid-1950s to 1987.