|Ralph Dungan. Source: jfklibrary.org|
On February 17, 1961, Life magazine ran a lengthy article about newly-inaugurated President John F. Kennedy’s
new cabinet, entitled “Kennedy’s Best Men Move Into Power.” At one point, Life staff writer Robert Coughlan profiles Kennedy’s inner circle of trusted advisors.
“Lawrence O’Brien, Kenneth O’Donnell and Ralph Dungan are often referred to in Washington as the I.R.A. (Irish Republican Army
), a term they don’t think is very funny,” Coughlan writes.
This Hibernian trio (along with Richard “Dick” Donahue and Dave Powers, whose parents were from Cork) were more commonly known as Kennedy’s Irish Mafia -- or “Murphia,” as Jackie Kennedy was known to quip.
With the 50th anniversary of that terrible day in November looming, JFK’s Irish Mafia
lost another member this week.
Dungan, a Kennedy aide who specialized in Latin American affairs and later revamped New Jersey’s higher education system, died at the age of 90.
That leaves Richard K. Donahue, currently serving as a vice chairperson of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, as the last surviving member of Kennedy’s Irish Army.
O’Donnell -- who took the deaths of Jack and Bobby very hard -- died in 1977, when he was just 54 years old.
Powers, meanwhile, became a driving force behind the JFK Library and Museum in Boston
and served as curator when it opened in 1979. He died in 1998 at the age of 85.
Finally, O’Brien -- who served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee and later became commissioner of the National Basketball Association -- died in 1990 at the age of 73.
And now Ralph Anthony Dungan is gone. He was born in Philadelphia. His own father (also Ralph) was a lawyer who was a mover and shaker in local political circles.
As JFK also did, Dungan served in the Navy during World War II. Dungan was a pilot and flight instructor, and attended St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia after the war on the G.I. Bill.
He met his future wife, the former Mary Theresa Rowley, while at St. Joseph’s. The couple would eventually marry and have eight children. (One died in infancy.)
Dungan’s Washington career began in the early 1950s, after he graduated from Princeton with a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. He served as an analyst for the obscure Bureau of the Budget.
However, in 1956, he was tapped to work as a legislative assistant in the office of upstart Senator John F. Kennedy. Not only was JFK headed for a landslide Senate re-election in 1958, but all political insiders knew that Kennedy also had his eyes on the White House in 1960.
Kennedy had already made a run for the Vice Presidential slot in 1956, narrowly losing out to Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, who was a household name at the time thanks to his chairmanship of an organized crime commission whose hearings drew huge TV ratings.
So when Dungan joined Kennedy’s office, he must have known he had a shot at making history, joining the first Irish Catholic in the White House. And he did just that.
After working on the campaign, Dungan joined JFK’s staff. As Life magazine described him in February 1961, “Dungan has spent most of his time so far on the talent hunt, and on setting up the White House staff machinery.”
Dungan quickly became a member of Kennedy’s inner circle. His specialties were recruiting talent as well as foreign affairs, particularly in Latin America.
After JFK’s assassination, Dungan stayed on to assist President Johnson’s transition. LBJ later named Dungan as ambassador to Chile, a post he served for three tumultuous years in the mid-1960s.
Things didn’t get any easier for Dungan in the 1970s when he became Chancellor for New Jersey higher education, doing battle with professors and university presidents, radically overhauling education in the Garden State.
Dungan was “a man of integrity and intelligence, a good liberal who was sensitive to the crosscurrents in our relations in Latin America,” presidential historian Robert Dallek told The New York Times this week. “He was a man of consequence to both Kennedy and Johnson.”
And so, as we look somberly to November 22, Camelot’s Irish Mafia is down to its last member.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)