In 1965, Pittston Knights of Columbus Council 372 changed its name to the John F. Kennedy Council and dedicated a painting of the slain president by Scranton portrait artist Leon Valenches. The portrait was hung in the council’s social quarters to commemorate the name change.
In 2015, the council celebrated the 50th anniversary of the name change, had the portrait cleaned at the same studio where it was created and rededicated the portrait with a celebration at the Woodlands. As a past president, P.J. Melvin was one of the speakers, and talked about the council name change and Kennedy Boulevard and said, “Something’s missing. Where’s the statue of JFK?”
Melvin said the statue idea had hit him several years earlier. He talked about it with Paul Leonard, another past president, but after Leonard passed away at 81 in 2013, the idea cooled.
The 50th anniversary rededication turned out to be a perfect opportunity to reheat the idea.
“I figured I had a captive audience,” Melvin said.
He was right. After he spoke, several Knights approached him offering to form a committee to raise money for a JFK statue. In two years, Council 372 — joined by it’s auxiliary, the Jacquelines, and the Greater Pittston Friendly Sons of St. Patrick — raised $25,000 for the statue. The groups are working on raising another $10,000 for landscaping, lighting, a commemorative plaque, and future maintenance.
Next Sunday, July 9, at 2 p.m. the life-sized, bronze, 485-pound statue created by artist DJ Bawden, of Provo, Utah, will be publicly unveiled on its permanent site in the corner of the YMCA parking lot facing Kennedy Boulevard and the Water Street Bridge.
Representatives of the JFK Knights, the Jacquelines, the Greater Pittston Friendly Sons and the city will speak. Judge Joseph Cosgrove will be the main speaker. Attorney Gerry Mecadon will be the master of ceremonies and the Rev. Thomas Petro will give the invocation and benediction. The Knights of Columbus Color Corps will stand guard.
In a press release, Knight Julio Caprari, vice president of the Greater Pittston Historical Society, described the statue: “His right hand is extended so that one may shake hands with the 35th president.”
No pose could be more appropriate in the Pittston area because JFK shook hundreds of hands when he stumped here Friday, Oct. 28, 1960, less than two weeks before he defeated Richard Nixon and was elected the 35th president of the United States.
On the West Side, thousands of people lined Wyoming Avenue where homes were decorated with Kennedy banners, likenesses and American flags. As Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Exeter, hundreds of citizens left the sidewalks reaching their hands into JFK’s open convertible for handshakes.
Candidates didn’t have Secret Service protection then and didn’t get that protection until after JFK’s brother, Robert, was assassinated campaigning in Los Angeles in 1968.
JFK’s state police escorts — including former Pittston and St. John’s football players Henry Crane and Edward Calonis — had a hard time clearing the avenue and the motorcade was delayed, causing a mess in West Pittston when it ran up against the St. John’s and West Pittston high school marching bands coming in the other direction headed to West Pittston stadium for a high school football game. The band members broke ranks and surrounded Kennedy’s car, hoping to see him up close or touch him, and again the caravan was stopped.
In Pittston, anxious JFK well-wishers swarmed the street as Kennedy exited the Water Street Bridge where 14-year-old P.J. Melvin caught a glimpse of him in the middle of what Melvin remembers as “a mob scene.” The mob scene was repeated in Duryea.
A spokesman for Kennedy told the Pittston Gazette “the turnout in Northeastern Pennsylvania was second only to that of New York City.” That’s why it took 14 hours for the motorcade to get from Allentown to Scranton, where Kennedy gave a major address at the Watres Armory.
And it’s why Kennedy’s motorcade through Pittston is considered a seminal event in Pittston’s history and why Kennedy will be placed and posed perfectly on the boulevard that bears his name.