President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking...

President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Credit: AP, 1961

Long before Ronald Reagan won the Cold War, John F. Kennedy began the conquest of space, averted a nuclear cataclysm and launched the Peace Corps.

For an Italian-American altar boy attending Our Lady of the Cenacle School in Richmond Hill, Queens, the republic's first Irish Catholic commander in chief was a hero.

Having paid homage to the ancient Italic concept of citizenship -- in his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech -- and lauded Leonardo da Vinci, Kennedy announced on Columbus Day in 1962 that, "My grandfather John Fitzgerald, mayor of Boston, claimed that the Fitzgeralds descended from the Geraldini family of Venice."

As someone who could recite the Lord's prayer in Italian, Latin and English, I was thrilled that the leader of the free world appreciated the patrimony of Dante, Michelangelo and, yes, a fifth-grade student named Rosario.

Moreover, in staring down the anti-Catholic know-nothings during the presidential campaign of 1960, JFK won the hearts and minds of more than a few WASP and Jewish voters -- as well as the admiration of Roman Catholics whose ancestors did not hail from the Emerald Isle.

In fact, during a 1960 campaign speech to Protestant ministers in Houston, JFK said "Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level" should "refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past."

When we learned that the president had been cut down by an assassin on Nov. 22, 1963, my entire fifth-grade class at the Richmond Hill parish fell silent. Recalling the president's Cuban missile crisis speech a year earlier, I nervously blurted out that maybe the Russians were responsible.

Our teacher, a strait-laced nun, excoriated me for being disrespectful.

Rather than wallow in guilt, I recalled JFK's grace under pressure.

I believe John Fitzgerald Kennedy would have employed his trademark Irish wit to console this saddened and frightened boy. And the 35th president of the United States might well have invoked his inaugural address in urging a "new generation of Americans" to remain "proud of our ancient heritage" despite the carnage in Dallas.

Reader Rosario Iaconis lives in Mineola.

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