Just before he left the White House in fall of 1963 on the trip that would take him to Dallas, President John F. Kennedy autographed a stack of glossy photographs sent to him by people from across the nation.
Among them was a photo from Tacoma.
It shows Kennedy amid the throngs on a sunny September day when he visited the city. In the foreground is a boy of about 12, wearing a white T-shirt and beginning to extend his right hand toward the president for a handshake.
That boy was Mark Haley, now 62 and still a resident of Tacoma’s North End.
The photograph, a bit faded now in its 8-by-10 frame, is a cherished family heirloom.
And the story of its odyssey from Tacoma to Washington, D.C., and back during one of the most tumultuous times in the nation’s history is nothing short of remarkable.
“A million to one chance, and young Mr. Haley has an autograph – probably one of the president’s last,” is how Mike Manatos, administrative assistant to Kennedy, described it in a letter dated June 11, 1964.
Haley said during a recent interview that the photo is a symbol both of a father’s love and the intrepidness of Kennedy’s and U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson’s staffs, even in the aftermath of the president’s assassination.
It was his father, Fred Haley, who procured the photo and sent it off to Washington with the hopes of getting Kennedy to sign it. Fred Haley died in 2005.
Haley said he still finds it remarkable that government officials on the other side of the country took pains to see that the photo was found and returned to his father.
“I think the real story is the lengths to which these public servants went to get an insignificant piece of history to a young boy back in the upper left-hand corner of the United States,” he said. “We’re blessed in this country to have such people working for us, and I think many people forget that.”
The story of the photo began 50 years ago Friday at Cheney Stadium, where the 35th president paid a visit during his so-called “conservation tour.”
Haley’s parents pulled him out of Washington Elementary School that day so he could witness the president’s speech.
“I remember that day very, very well,” Haley said. “It was a sunny day. I remember the helicopter coming in.”
After the speech, Kennedy left the dais and began making his way down a line of local dignitaries, shaking hands.
“I was able to wiggle my way through the crowd of adults to stand at the rope line and was lucky enough to have him shake my hand, though he was too busy with the adult crowd to pay much attention to the little kid standing there,” Haley recalled.
Several photographers were covering the event, and one, working either for the University of Puget Sound or Pacific Lutheran University, snapped a photo that captured Haley awaiting the president.
Haley’s father later spotted the photo in one of the universities’ newsletters or alumni magazines and recognized his son.
“I remember saying, ‘Wow, that’s me,’” Haley recalled.
Fred Haley got an idea: Wouldn’t it be a great if he could get a print of the photo and somehow persuade Kennedy to sign it for his boy?
Fred Haley, president of the Brown & Haley candy company, tracked down a print and mailed it off to his friend, Magnuson.
“The boy in the center of this picture is my son, who wouldn’t wash his hands that night because the president had shaken hands with him and spoken directly to him,” Fred Haley wrote in a letter dated Oct. 22, 1963. “His name is Mark, and one of his life’s glorious moments would be complete if his father could get this picture autographed by the president at some future time when it is appropriate, and his father could then give it to him framed for his room.
“Do you think that could be done?”
Magnuson apparently thought so, because on Oct. 25 he sent a letter to Manatos at the White House.
“It is my hope that you can find a moment when President Kennedy can autograph the picture for Mark and that I can send it to him,” the senator wrote.
Lawrence F. O’Brien, special assistant to the president, responded to Magnuson on Nov. 1.
“The President will be pleased to grant your request and I shall send it to you for forwarding to Mark as soon as the President signs the picture,” O’Brien wrote.
Magnuson dashed off a letter to Fred Haley to relay the good news.
“Will forward it to you as soon as the autograph picture is received, Fred,” Magnuson wrote on Nov. 4.
Eighteen days later, Kennedy was dead, slain by a sniper in Dallas, and the fate of the photo was left uncertain.
It remained on Fred Haley’s mind, though. On Christmas Eve, he sent Magnuson another letter.
“I don’t suppose the picture got signed, but if it can be located perhaps Mr. O’Brien might mail it back,” he wrote. “I am sorry to bother you or him really.”
Magnuson inquired and two days later wrote with news of the photo’s fate.
“As our late President Kennedy enplaned for Florida and thence to Texas, his desk was piled high with photographs to be autographed,” the senator wrote. “The one for Mark was, as I understand, among these.”
Magnuson went on to explain that Kennedy’s personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, had gathered up the photos and other correspondence and was in the process of sorting it all out.
“Some of the pictures are being returned now – some signed and some unsigned – and we’ll probably have yours within the next two to three weeks, Fred,” Magnuson wrote.
After five months passed without word, Fred Haley decided to give it one last try.
“I think probably I ought to take one more shot at this, because if that picture can be located and certainly if it happens to have received the late President’s signature, it would be a priceless memento for my son,” he wrote in a June 3, 1964, letter to Magnuson. “It’s too bad to bother you with such a detail, but then perhaps Miss Lincoln has her correspondence pretty well sorted out by now.”
On June 11, Manatos, in the “One in a million” letter, informed Magnuson that the photo had been found and that it had been signed.
Magnuson fired off the photo to Tacoma on June 15.
“You will be as pleased as I am, Fred, with the enclosed autographed picture and the letter from Mike Manatos, Administrative Assistant to the President,” the senator wrote. “I can’t and won’t attempt to add to what Mike said. I’m just grateful.”
The package from Magnuson arrived in Tacoma on June 22.
Fred Haley sent a letter to Magnuson the next day.
“Your letter of June 15th, the note from Mike Manatos, and the autographed picture of my son Mark with President Kennedy arrived yesterday,” Fred Haley wrote. “I took it home and his mother and I both wept over it.”
In appreciation, Fred Haley had two tins of Almond Roca sent to the nation’s capital: one for Magnuson and his staff, and another for Manatos.
Fred Haley had the photo framed and gave it to his son later that year. He wrote, “To my son Mark, Christmas 1964” on the back.
Mark Haley, of course, has held onto the photo and the sheaf of letters documenting its adventures.
“It might not be important to anyone else, but it’s important to me,” he said. “I feel it’s a pretty special gift of love that my father was able to give to me.”