Ron Delpit has struck an endless stream of words to paper in his long journalism career, but it was a poem he penned as a college freshman that still gets him choked up even after nearly 50 years.
The longtime Las Vegan was a 19-year-old at Fresno State in late November 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Although he wasn’t politically active, Delpit was raised in a Catholic house, and he saw firsthand what the violent death did to his parents and family members.
The poem, all 32, four-line stanzas of rhyming couplets, just sort of came to him. He wrote it in a couple sittings a few weeks after the assassination, and meant to leave it in a drawer. But his mother, a devout woman and great admirer of the nation’s first Catholic president, typed “The Saga of John Fitzgerald Kennedy,” stamped an envelope, and mailed it to the White House.
Never mind that first lady Jacqueline Kennedy didn’t live there anymore. The poem, with its unvarnished message and youthful sentiment, found her and touched her broken heart.
She sent Delpit a personalized note and invited him to Washington so that she could thank him personally. A prepaid airline ticket was sent. She later had the poem placed in the Kennedy Library, along with a sample of the enormous outpouring of condolence the family received in the days and weeks after the assassination.
“At the time I think Jackie Kennedy was the most revered woman in the world,” Delpit recalled Friday morning at his home. “She certainly had a lot on her mind.”
The lunch meeting at a Washington hotel restaurant was brief. With what appeared to be a dozen Secret Service agents around them, they weren’t exactly alone. Delpit nervously picked at his salad, but even in his youthful anxiety he was impressed by the woman’s incredible composure. Mrs. Kennedy was one for the ages.
“She asked me about myself, where I went to school,” he said, the emotion of the time long past returning to his upstairs office. “She wanted to put me at ease. She was so elegant and gracious. She said she really enjoyed the poem.”
And then the lunch ended. He floated away from the table and out of the restaurant and has wondered since about how composed she looked and how devastated she must have been.
How do you go on from such a thing? How do you keep your head up?
At his desk Friday, Delpit took out a copy of the poem and reread each line aloud. It’s not Shakespeare, but you can still hear the honest sentiment in each rhyming line.
“John F. Kennedy was a courageous man,
The first of his faith to rule the land,
Vibrant, youthful, and possessed of wit,
With his wife Jacqueline in open car did sit.”
Delpit paused during several stanzas as the emotion returned and then finished:
“Kennedy had all a man could hope to attain.
Fame, fortune, intelligence, and love ruled his domain.
The 36th U.S. President as a martyr was slain
But long past eternity, his memory will remain.”
Friday will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination, and it’s hard to turn on a television or pick up a newspaper without being reminded of the grim event and its devastating aftermath. So much has been written about the Kennedy family and the president’s assassination that the gross weight of all that analysis makes it possible to miss the damage the murder carved in the American psyche.
“If it weren’t for my mother, it never would have happened,” Delpit said of meeting the president’s widow. “I give her credit for sending it, or it never would have gotten where it did. I think I wrote the poem just as an exercise to vent my emotions on the situation. I saw what the event did to my parents.”
Delpit went on to write for several newspapers, including the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and in the late 1960s was sports editor of the Review-Journal. He published a magazine, worked as a hotel publicity man, became a sports agent, and these days is busy putting the finishing touches on his third book.
He never wrote another poem.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.