Pat Kennedy wasn’t a relative to the ‘other’ Kennedys, but he was never anxious to tell others that. It was nice in those balmy days of 1961 to ride the smooth carpet of the most famous name in America. Thought, in all honesty, Pat never ‘lived off’ the name. He made his own way to Washington, D.C. and the Peace Corps, he was a good guy who treated everyone fairly, and unlike many others, didn’t use his ‘connections’ to make his way in the agency.
Like most of those early staffers he had ‘family money’ and he was young, twenty-eight, married to Ellen Conroy a wonderful (and in my opinion, much smarter wife. Ellen who, by the way, was the sister of Frank Conroy, who wrote the wonderful Stop-Time, and was for years director of the Iowa Writer’s Program, but back to Pat.) Pat was a teaching fellow at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (history) when he heard about JFK’s late-night challenge to the students at the University of Michigan. (You’ll be hearing a lot about that 2 a.m. event in Michigan in the months ahead.)
Pat Kennedy had a connect to JFK–a real connection–and that was Lemoyne Billings, a close (and strange friend) as we would come to know, of JFK. Pat had worked with Billings while campaigning for Kennedy in Wisconsin.
In December 1960, Pat and Ellen left the snows of Wisconsin to drive into the snows of Washington, D.C. It was a cross country drive that would change his life forever.
Some background on Padraic Kennedy. While he had an Irish name, he really was a wealthy WASP (not that I have anything against them) who was named after the Irish poet, Padraic Colum. (Pat did not write poetry, but Ellen was a real French scholar who translated African poets into English before that became vogue. She was a first class scholar in her own right. I was reading Ellen’s essays in the Kenyon Review before I ever heard of the Peace Corps!)
Pat had been in the Army in Europe (drafted, as we all were) and then studied at Columbia, and was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. He was going to be a teacher. At Wisconsin he had earned his M.A. in American history, published a couple articles in historical journals about Senator Robert LaFollette and the foreign policy of the Progressives.
But all that academic stuff went out the window when he took over the job of directing Kennedy’s campaign headquarters in Madison. He says of that period, “my effectiveness was considerably enhance by my name. Everyone wondered which of the Kennedys I was.”
After the campaign he turned down the job of Exective Director of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin. He wanted to be in Washington where the action was. And that’s where Lemoyne Billings comes into the story.
In her book, Come As You Are: The Peace Corps Story, Coates Redmon quotes Kennedy:
“Arriving in D.C. I made a date with Lem Billings to go hear George Shearing at the Embers, and I told him I was really interested in the Peace Corps. As luck would have it, Lem was going down to Palm Beach the next day to be with the president-elect. He scared me, though. He said he didn’t know for sure whether or not JFK had used the peace corps idea as campaign bait or whether he was interested in it seriously–whether it was actually going to be part of his administration. Then I thought to myself. ‘Now, don’t be ridiculous. The man proposed it in a major foreign policy speech. [Cow Palace] Surely he couldn’t renege on it.”
“I didn’t hear anything from Lem for about a month, and then one night back in Madison after grading blue books until 2:00 a.m., I fell asleep when the phone rang. It was so cold I almost didn’t get up, but you wonder about phone calls at that hour, so I got up and answered it. A woman said, ‘Mr. Kennedy? The White House is calling.’ In a second, there was Lem Billings on the phone saying cheerily, ‘Guess where I am.’
“I said, ‘Are you at the White House by any change?’
“I’m not only at the White House,’ said Billings. ‘I’m in the Lincoln bed. Are you still interested in the Peace Corps?’
‘Well, I’ve talked to Sarge Shriver and he’d like you to come to Washington for an interview immeditely. How soon can you get here?’
‘I said, ‘I’ll be there in twenty-four hours.’”
[Part One of Padraic Kennedy Goes To Washington]