Memories of Kennedy are bittersweet for Wheeling woman

WHEELING – Images of two shootings -one by a photographer, one by an assassin – will forever vie for space in Janet Cunningham’s mind.

Unlike millions of other age-appropriate baby boomers who will never forget watching the events on Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas as an assassin took the life of President John F. Kennedy, Cunningham recalls a much more personal encounter on the streets of South Wheeling.

One of her most cherished possessions is an April 20, 1960 photo in The Intelligencer of her receiving an autograph from then-Senator Kennedy as he stumped for votes in Wheeling during his first and only campaign for the presidency.

During the Wheeling stop, Kennedy visited the former Sylvania Electric plant on Main Street. Cunningham’s dad, the late Teddy Martinkosky, wanted his 5-year-old daughter to get close to the senator from Massachusetts.

“My dad was on crutches because a car had fallen on him,” she said. “Somebody from the Kennedy entourage must have seen him struggling for position and they signaled for us to move to the front. Kennedy bent over and gave me his autograph.”

Cunnigham, now an administrative assistant to Ohio County Circuit Judge James Mazzone, remembers going to the event but a lot of the details are fuzzy in her mind.

“I remember going there, but not leaving,” she said. “There was a very large crowd and my dad was really struggling with those crutches.”

One thing she does remember is how angry her late mother, Mirandy, became when she learned her daughter had torn the Kennedy autograph picture out of the paper without getting the written description of what was happening.

“She got real mad,” Cunningham said. “I tore the picture out of the paper without thinking or knowing how to do it. I was only 5 years old.”

The newspaper clipping and a copy of “Four Days” – the historical record of Kennedy’s death and funeral – are among the most prized items Cunningham gleaned from her mother’s personal belongings. Sadly, the campaign autograph experience shares space in her memory with the tragic assassination three years later.

She recalls watching a movie with other students at the former St. Ladislaus Elementary School when one of the sisters announced the president had been shot.

“That was the end of the movie and they sent us home,” she said. “We were glued to the television from then on. I remember watching as (Lee Harvey) Oswald got shot. I said ‘there has been another shooting’; and my mother said they were probably replaying the Kennedy shooting.”

The Kennedy presidency strongly impacted Cunningham’s childhood and home life.

“He was like a member of the family,” she said. “His presidential picture hung in our house for years – long after his death.”