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President John F. Kennedy and his young son, John Jr., at the White House

Ten years after: A look back at the life and death of JFK Jr.

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President John F. Kennedy and his young son, John Jr., at the White House

  • PHOTO GALLERY / SNAPSHOTS FROM THE LIFE OF JFK JR. / CLICK HERE

He would be 49 now, close to Barack Obama in age and sharing this moment with him. Maybe he'd be in elective politics, perhaps as Hillary's replacement in the Senate.

Or he might even have been thinking to run for the job his father once held. We will never know.

Ten years after his death on July 16, 1999, John Kennedy Jr. remains forever the uncrowned king, a lost leader who might have found this time his own to command. He was a visionary. His magazine George caught perfectly the moment when celebrity and politics became fused and botox became more important than biotech.

He had an extraordinary common touch. This is a true story: A few years back when John F. Kennedy Jr. was an Assistant District Attorney in New York he received a letter from an Irish farmer which stated in part, "I am coming to the United States for a visit. I will die a happy man if I could shake the hand of the son of President Kennedy." Kennedy received thousands of letters every year seeking appointments, but for some reason this one grabbed his attention and he agreed to meet.

"On the day in question an old guy showed up in his best polyester suit with a very broad tie stretching down below his belt buckle" remembers a former Kennedy colleague. "He walked in the door, pulled out a picture of the dead president from his back pocket and handed it to John to sign. When John did so, tears welled up in the old man's eyes.

"He then pulled an Irish linen tablecloth out of his bag and handed it to John who accepted it gracefully. The man then took out his Instamatic camera and snapped numerous shots. He went back happy to Ireland with pictures of himself and the son of John Kennedy."

Such was the appeal of young Kennedy to many Irish.

It was no surprise that the Irish community in New York did not a forget him in his tragic hour . A Memorial Mass for John Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn and sister-in-law Lauren Besette was celebrated. at Old St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mott Street in Manhattan. There in the old cathedral where generations of Irish not long off the famine ships worshipped, the memory of the most famous Irish emigrant family was rekindled and their latest tragic loss commemorated.

According to the celebrant, Fr. Colm Campbell, a Belfast native, the Mass was a small token of the esteem the community held for the man who died so tragically.

Among the poems read on the evening was the lament to Eoghan Rua O'Neill: "Why did you leave us Eoghan, Why did you die," which was widely quoted when President John F. Kennedy died.

Though he was never front-page material on Irish issues, John Kennedy Jr. nonetheless was becoming more interested in his roots. He is, of course, descended from Patrick Kennedy, a peasant farmer in Wexford who was destined to become Ireland's most famous emigrant.. Patrick left Ireland in 1848 to escape the Famine and traveled to Boston. In Boston, he became a cooper and was active in politics and the fight against anti-Catholicism. In September of 1849 he married Bridget Murphy, a neighbor from home. His son Patrick became a successful businessman, and it was his son, Joseph Kennedy, who created the Kennedy fortune.

John Kennedy Jr. visited his ancestral home in Dunganstown in 1967. "He ran in from the farm saying there was electricity in the grass, and all because he got stung by the nettles," his Irish cousin Patrick Grennan told The Irish Times.  "Jackie Kennedy wanted him and his sister Caroline to see the land where their family came from. She visited the homestead and then sent the children back the next day barefoot to experience authentic farm life."

  • VIDEO / RECORDING OF YOUNG JOHN JR. INTERRUPTING HIS DAD'S PRESIDENTIAL TALK / CLICK HERE

Kennedy may have been about to relive those links again. According to family sources, John and his sister Caroline had kept closely up to date with the reconstruction of the Famine ship Dunbrody. Many of them believed that John Jr. himself would have been part of the voyage recreating that of his great-great grandfather over a century and a half ago.

After his death, the project fizzled and was only recently revived.

His most notable contribution on Irish issues was a lengthy interview he carried out with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams during a visit to Ireland in June of 1997 for his George magazine. As part of that visit, Kennedy attended the funeral of Patrick Kelly, an IRA prisoner who had died in a British jail when his cancer was diagnosed too late. Kelly was buried in the Irish Republic, and the following day John Jr. took the train to Belfast and was met at the central station there by Richard and Chrissie McAuley, two Sinn Fein representatives. For the next seven hours, they showed the son of the former President around the city in order to prepare him for his interview.

"First we went to the Markets area, where by coincidence a large number of British troops had begun patrolling the area," says Richard McAuley. "Because this was a time between the two IRA ceasefires, there was lots of British Army activity for Kennedy to witness." Later he went with the McAuleys to Milltown Cemetery to view the graves of the Irish hunger strikers whose deaths in 1981 had effected such a huge transformation both within Irish Republicanism and how it was viewed from the outside.

"I remember Kennedy remarking how young they were when they died," says McAuley, "and how tragic the loss of so many men had been." They also visited the Felons Club in West Belfast, where Kennedy had the obligatory pint of stout in the company of many ex-IRA prisoners.

In his article in George the following month, Kennedy proved to be no pushover for Sinn Fein. His questions were tough and very well-informed. He drew the analogy between the South African peace process and Northern Ireland, and told the story about the Northern Ireland delegation including Sinn Fein and the Unionists that went to South Africa for a conference. One of the biggest Unionist complaints during the visit was that Sinn Fein had been given a better cocktail bar.

  • VIDEO / CNN COVERAGE OF JFK JR.'S DEATH AND ONE OF HIS LAST INTERVIEWS / CLICK HERE

"My God, we were never this bad," Kennedy quotes a senior ANC officer as saying. Adams had also met Kennedy previously in New York during one of his visits here, and they spent several hours discussing the Northern Ireland issue.

"Kennedy seemed to see it in terms of what happened in the 1960s in the south," said a Sinn Fein member who was present. Apart from his interest in Northern Ireland, Kennedy had one other major Irish interest - acting in Irish plays. He made his New York stage debut at the age of 24 in October of 1985 at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan. He played the part of a young man who got his girlfriend pregnant in the Brian Friel play "Winners." The show ran for six nights of private performances and was well-received by its audiences.

In a sad and ironic twist, the play's ending includes Kennedy's character and his girlfriend drowning and washing ashore. There are eerie similarities between the play and the real-life tragedy. In the play the couple are lost at sea for three days before their bodies are found - the same length of time that John Kennedy Jr. and his wife were missing.

Although the center made no attempts to publicize the play, a mention in Liz Smith's gossip column in the New York Daily News touched off an avalanche of coverage, including lead stories in both the Daily News and the New York Post, and articles in Newsweek and People.

According to James Flannery, professor of theater and drama at Emory University in Atlanta, who had heard of Kennedy's talent when he was a student at Brown University, John was a natural actor who could have been among the greats if he had decided to pursue an acting career. Nye Heron, manager of the Irish Arts Center at the time Kennedy acted there, agreed. Calling Kennedy's instincts as an actor "fantastic," Heron told Irish America magazine at the time that John Jr. had "the best Irish accent of any young American actor I've seen."

Kennedy was a frequent attendee at Irish events. He was present for the inaugural luncheon announcing Ireland House, the New York University center for Irish studies, in 1991. (The center was opened in 1993). He also attended several meetings of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy when they held forums on Northern Ireland including the event where Gerry Adams addressed the group.

  • STORY / JACKIE AND BOBBY KENNEDY IN PASSIONATE, DOOMED FOUR-YEAR AFFAIR / CLICK HERE

His untimely death revived many tellings of the alleged Irish curse that hangs over his family. But the reality is that John F. Kennedy Jr. accomplished more in his short life than many will in a lifetime. Starting a magazine, for instance, which he did with George, a political monthly, was no rich kid's idle pursuit. He brought its circulation over the 400,000 mark and proved himself a savvy publisher in a business where new magazines have a 90 percent failure rate.

In addition, he quietly helped dozens of worthy charities, continuing the Kennedy notion of public service. As for a future political career, many New York insiders believed he would have run for governor or senator, and that it was ony a matter of time.

That is all useless speculation now. What is true is that throughout his life, he retained an affection for his Irish roots and was loved in turn by many Irish who after his death were in mourning for the man who represented the most extraordinary family ever to leave Ireland's shores.

In a strange way, John Jr's death merely strengthened the bond between the two.

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