MCKEESPORT, PA – Mention the date September 11, 2001 and virtually any person over the age of 25 – and many younger than that, including some who were not even born yet – understand its significance all too well. As the first airplane struck Tower 1 of the twin World Trade Center skyscrapers, President George W. Bush sat in a classroom of a Sarasota, FL elementary school, about to read a story titled “The Pet Goat” to a classroom full of second graders. The president was visiting the school as part of his tour to promote education. That was 9/11’s calm before the storm.
Thirty-nine years earlier, an even greater threat loomed over not only the United States, but the entire world – the entire human race, as we know it: the Cuban Missile Crisis. On October 14, 1962, the United States confirmed that the Soviet Union, under its Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, was placing nuclear weapons in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the United States. In response, President John F. Kennedy dispatched a fleet to form a blockade to prevent further Soviet ships from being able to deliver more missiles to Cuba, and demanding that the ones already delivered be dismantled and returned to the Soviet Union.
For 13 angst-ridden days, the world remained on edge as the two superpowers flexed their military muscles on the high seas, on the brink of setting off a nuclear war that would effectively destroy human civilization. But on the day before – which was the Cuban Missile Crisis’ calm before the storm – Kennedy spent some time with the Greek-American mayor of McKeesport, PA Andrew “Greeky” Jakomas, and addressed a crowd of over 25,000 who turned out to hear the president campaign for local Democratic candidates ahead of the following month’s midterm elections.
“I was so excited to see President Kennedy” said Jean Skamangas, a resident of McKeesport who was shopping and noticed his motorcade slowly going by. “He was sitting on the back of the limo with (his wife) Jackie. You could see that he was really looking into the people’s faces, connecting with the crowd.”
The president began, it what was then an municipal parking lot in McKeesport, by announcing Mayor Jakomas and the other dignitaries on hand, including U.S. Senator Joseph Clark, and PA’s Governor David Lawrence. Just as Kennedy had become America’s first Catholic president, Lawrence was Pennsylvania’s first Catholic governor.
The speech, essentially, was to persuade the crowd to vote Democratic in the upcoming election. Much like Bush had no idea that once he closed “The Pet Goat” he was about to learn about one of the most catastrophic episodes in American history, Kennedy spoke of a litany of challenges that faced the United States, but never mentioned the Soviet Union specifically.
FIRST KENNEDY-NIXON DEBATE
Much was made about the 1960 presidential debates between Kennedy, running as a Democrat, and the Republican incumbent vice president, Richard Nixon, as they were the first presidential debates to be televised. Fewer folks realize, though, that they were also the first debates between two major party presidential contenders, period. Never before had the Democratic and Republican nominees faced each other. The two future presidents, however, publicly debated face-to-face once before, in McKeesport, on April 22, 1947. It was over the Taft-Hartley Act – Kennedy was against it, Nixon in favor of it – which restricted the power of labor unions. “He won that one,” Kennedy told the laughing crowd, “and we went on to other things.” Kennedy meant that the Act did become law, but the “other” things were the 1960 election, which Kennedy narrowly won, the victory widely attributable to Nixon’s inferior telegenic appearance, particularly in the first debate that year.
FIRST KENNEDY STATUE
Perhaps merely coincidence that Jakomas’ ancestry is from the land that produced such immortal sculptors as Phidias and Praxiteles. Nonetheless, through his swift thinking and insistence, Jakomas commissioned what became the first ever full-body statue of John F. Kennedy, in honor of the deceased president. Felled by an assassin’s bullet on November 22, 1963, a mere 13 months after his second and final stop in McKeesport, Kennedy has been commemorated ever since in countless ways, including the release of the Kennedy half-dollar (50-cent coin) into public circulation on February 9, 1965. On that same day, the statue of Kennedy was placed into that former McKeesport municipal lot, renamed Kennedy Memorial Park.
Three days after Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas – ironically, while riding in the very same limousine in which he rode into McKeesport the year before – Jakomas commissioned the statue. “The city doesn’t have a statue of any kind right now,” the mayor said, “and I’d like this to be our first one.”
A notable coincidence is that as Kennedy bid adieu to Jakomas that day, the last before the two-week ordeal in which he would be pitted against Nikita Khrushchev is the uncanny resemblance Jakomas bore to Khrushchev. How ironic – eerie, in fact – that two men with very little in common other than that both held positions of power (though quite disparate ones) looked so much alike and their lives crossed not with one another, but with President Kennedy only hours apart. Jean’s husband, Emmanuel remembers Jakomas as a “take charge” kind of guy. “He would get things done,” he said. Not afraid to roll up his sleeves and work, Jakomas “would make sure there wasn’t any slow on the streets, even if he had to plow it himself. He was well-liked,” Skamangas said. “A lot more people liked him than did not.”
The Story behind the Story
By Constantinos E. Scaros
“Look what I found,” my wife said, handing me a poster-sized photograph of John F. Kennedy shaking hands with another man, with the words “Men of Proven Ability” appearing in block letters at the bottom. “Wow, where’d you find it?” I said. “I rescued it from the burn pit – my dad put it out there [presumably inadvertently].” NOTE: Here in Central PA, it is customary to have a burn pit in the backyard in which to incinerate certain types of trash, such as newspapers, twigs, and cardboard boxes. My father-in-law brought over the latter, most likely not realizing one of the pieces of cardboard was a historic photo.
“Who’s the other guy?” My wife asked, about the man with whom President Kennedy was shaking hands. “It’s gotta be Khrushchev,” I replied, referring to former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, forever intertwined with Kennedy in history, particularly because of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Not entirely convinced, my wife asked: “but what would my dad be doing with this picture?” indicating that there must have been some local connection (my parents-in-law, until their recent move to Central PA, lived in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKeesport for many decades).
Who else could the older, shorter, stouter, nearly-bald man be? The double chin, the medal on the lapel – it certainly wasn’t Richard Nixon, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle, or anyone else from that era commonly associated with Kennedy under whom the words “Men of Proven Ability” might appear.
I showed my wife some photos of Khrushchev on the Internet and we both agreed the man in the photo, while bearing a strong resemblance to Khrushchev, was not an absolute dead ringer for the ex-Soviet chief. This man’s eyes – whole face, in fact – though seen only from a profile, was softer and warmer. “Maybe it’s Fred Mertz,” I joked, referring to the I Love Lucy character played by William Frawley. “Now that’s more like it,” said my wife.
A little while later, she texted me: “It’s McKeesport Mayor Andrew Jakomas.” She had asked her parents. And then I spoke with them, too. “They called him ‘Greeky,’” they began…