By Jim Coughlin
My Aunt Mary – Mary Barelli-Gallagher – died recently (April 22, 2022) in Alexandria, Virginia, at the age of 95. She had lived a pretty amazing life for an American woman of her generation. She lived in that city, just outside of Washington, D.C, after being appointed as one of Senator John F. Kennedy’s very first staff appointments for his Senatorial office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D. C. This was after JFK defeated Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in November of 1952.
One of my aunt’s first tasks she was assigned by Senator Kennedy was translating incoming mail coming from Italian immigrants and constituents who wrote to his office in Italian. My aunt was amply qualified to do this for Senator Kennedy because at the Barelli home in Hyde Park, Boston, only Italian was spoken!
It all began when my late Aunt Mary worked at a paper company in downtown Boston where a former salesman, Kenneth P. O’Donnell (who happened to be from Worcester), had left to work for then Congressman John F. Kennedy’s senatorial campaign that year.
According to my aunt, O’Donnell recruited her to work for Kennedy shortly after Kennedy won the election. After Kennedy had ascended to the Presidency, he named Kenny O’Donnell as his Appointments Secretary, which by today’s political standards would be called “The President’s Chief of Staff.”
My Aunt Mary started working for Senator Kennedy in January of 1953. Since then, and until November 1963, my aunt worked at various times for a total of three members of the Kennedy family: John F. Kennedy; his wife, Jacqueline; and also for Jackie’s mother, Janet Auchincloss, on a part-time basis during the mid- 1950s.
After President Kennedy’s inauguration, my aunt began working as the Personal Secretary to his wife, First Lady Jackie Kennedy, in the family quarters of the White House. Aunt Mary held that position until President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.
Aunt Mary later continued working for Mrs. Kennedy at her home in Washington, D.C, for about a year following the assassination, until the fall of 1964, when Mrs. Kennedy moved with her children to New York City.
During the Kennedy administration, my aunt never traveled publicly with the President or his wife on their official trips. However, the one time that she did was on November 22, 1963, the day of the President’s assassination in Dallas, Texas. Immediately after President Kennedy was rushed to the Parkland Hospital in Dallas, my aunt sat right next to Jacqueline as she kept a vigil immediately outside of the hospital’s Trauma Unit One. The ER doctors had told my aunt “not to change any of her expressions.”
Later, when the President’s casket was brought home to Andrew’s Air Force Base, just outside of Washington, D.C. in Maryland, when they were deplaning from Air Force One, my Aunt Mary was right next to Jacqueline Kennedy and the President’s younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy, who at the time was serving as Attorney General of the United States.
In happier times, on the President’s Inauguration Day on January 20, 1961, my aunt was the last one to see JFK out of his house in the Georgetown section of Washington, D C. when he was still “President-elect Kennedy.” Earlier that day, my aunt was in the room when still Senator Kennedy rehearsed his soon to be legendary inauguration address before heading out to the White House to meet with outgoing President Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower.
In August of 1962, my aunt had arranged with the President’s personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, for members of my immediate family to come down to Washington, D.C for a complete tour of the White House that was topped off with a private audience with the President in the West Sitting Room of the White House! While we were waiting for the President to arrive, we were all a little bit on edge. However, when a big brown door was opened, the President of the United States began walking towards us and he looked very rested, tanned and was brandishing a very big “Kennedy smile.” As he approached our family, my mother literally jumped up and screamed, “Mary, he is even more handsome than in his pictures!” My aunt later said, “she squirmed, embarrassed that he (JFK) might have heard – needlessly at that. He not only heard but obviously loved it.”
My older brother John was equally, if not more, complimentary to the President of the United States. He said, “I am not going to wash my hand (the one that “shook” Kennedy’s in their handshake) for a week.” At first, the President did not know what to say. It was almost as if he was caught off guard (if only for a second) by my brother’s great compliment. The President began to laugh and then he immediately flashed the most beautiful smile that one could ever imagine.
This interaction our family had with the most powerful man in the world has long remained as very powerfully charged memories amongst members of our family.
Also in this meeting, upon the President’s hearing that my mother, Eva, had married a fellow Irishman, it was now the President’s turn for a return compliment to our family. He quipped, “So another member of the family went off to marry an Irishman.”
My cousins Christopher and Gregory, who live in Alexandria, recently told me their lives were much connected and intertwined to the members of the Kennedy family, especially during the Kennedy administration. During that time at the White House when Caroline Kennedy’s childcare worker was of on Wednesdays, my cousins would be the childhood playmates for Caroline, either at the White House or at my aunt’s home in nearby Alexandria.
There is a little known fact that the President was allergic to animal fur. This made it necessary for the Kennedys to give Caroline Kennedy’s very much loved cat, “Tom Kitten,” to the Gallaghers. So Caroline would he happy to come and visit with the Gallaghers so she could spend time with Tom Kitten! In fact, the White House cat is buried in the back yard of my aunt’s home in Alexandria, Virginia.
My aunt very often said that her relationship with Jacqueline Kennedy “was like that of a sister.” In July of 1960, my aunt had traveled with the Senator and his wife to be with them at Democratic National Convention when he was competing for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Jacqueline Kennedy happened to walk into the Senator’s room and caught my aunt changing one of her daughter Caroline’s diapers. This made Jackie quip, “So, Mary, you are part of the family.”
My aunt once wrote about her long relationship with the Kennedys: ” … when I was a child, I never dreamed that I would work at the White House, walk with Presidents and be on a first-time basis with the First Lady of the United States. Jackie Kennedy was like a sister to me and neither time nor distance can erase the memories of the years we shared together.”
As I sit in my hotel room in Alexandria, Virginia, penning this tribute to my aunt for the CECELIA newspaper, Mary Barelli Gallagher preparing to later attend a Funeral Mass of the Resurrection at St. Mary’s Basicilia, (and later to take her to her final resting place), my aunt remains my hero, right alongside President John F. Kennedy and all the Kennedys.
My aunt’s association with the Kennedys has inspired me over my many years of being a researcher and lecturer on The Kennedy Presidency.
And, yes, to those who wonder what keeps me going with my unabated passion for a state holiday in the state of Massachusetts, it is the relationship that my aunt and my cousins and members of my family had with the 35th President of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, JFK.
And as President Kennedy very often said, “God willing, that goal will be achieved.”