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Kennedy’s memory lives on in Bermuda garden

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This week Bermuda Governor George Fergusson paid a visit to a special palm growing on the grounds of Government House.

The tree was planted 52 years ago by President John F Kennedy during a crucial summit with Prime Minister Harold MacMillan.

Today marks a half a century since President Kennedy was assassinated in Deally Plaza, Dallas, Texas.

Like many people alive in that era, Governor Fergusson remembers the day Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, although he was only eight years old at the time.

“We were living in Wellington, New Zealand,” said Mr Fergusson. “My parents were away and I remember asking someone why the flag on the Dominion Museum was hanging low. I was told that Mr Kennedy had been shot and recall feeling very shocked. My father was Governor-General and visiting a very remote part of the South Island, with erratic communications. He received a message from New Zealand Broadcasting asking for a ‘comment on President Kennedy' before he had heard the news itself. He returned immediately to Wellington when the news finally came through.”

The conference in Bermuda between Kennedy and MacMillan had happened two years previously, beginning on December 21, 1961 to discuss geo-political and nuclear policy.

President Kennedy arrived in Bermuda on a silver and orange Boeing Jet from Palm Beach Florida at 12.55pm. He was greeted by Governor Sir Julian Gascoigne and a host of local dignitaries. He was accompanied by US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security advisor McGeorge Bundy, US ambassador to London David Bruce and other high-ranking officials. Macmillan's party included Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home, British ambassador to Washington David Ormsby-Gore and nuclear weapons advisor Sir William Penney.

The day was windy, and the president repeatedly brushed the hair out of his face as the combined bands of the Bermuda Rifles, and Bermuda Militia, burst into the national anthems while an honour guard resplendent in scarlet uniforms, snapped to attention.

A small, but enthusiastic, crowd burst into applause, and most of them pointed cameras at the president.

He made a brief speech at the airport, telling the people of Bermuda, he was “delighted to be here”.

In some remarks at the airport addressed to Macmillan — and the people of Bermuda — President Kennedy said: “I want to express my great pleasure at having an opportunity to talk to you again and to visit you on your territory which has been the scene of most important meetings beneficial to both our countries.”

He went directly to Government House by motorcade. Adults and children lined the roads along the North Shore to catch a glimpse.

Kennedy and MacMillan held their first solo meeting in a small drawing room at Government House called the West Hall. Apparently they spoke before a roaring fire, which must have made things very hot as apparently it was unseasonably warm in Bermuda for December.

Although they sipped gin and tonics and joked with each other, a bit, the topic was very serious ­­­— the escalating nuclear arms race which could have resulted in Armageddon. The Soviets had just resumed atmospheric hydrogen bomb tests in the wake of the June Berlin Wall crisis. At the end of October they had detonated the Tsar Bomba (Emperor Bomb), which remains, to this day, the largest thermonuclear weapon ever exploded — carrying a yield equivalent to 50,000 tons of TNT.

Both the president and the Prime Minister were accompanied by their own teams of nuclear experts.

The meeting in Bermuda wasn't all doom and gloom. While on the Island the president was presented with a Royal Worcester figurine of a hog fish and sergeant major. At the base was a piece of Bermuda Coral.

All major dignitaries that visited Bermuda were required to plant a tree at Government House, and Kennedy was no exception. Unfortunately, he had injured his back the previous May in a tree planting in Ottawa and had been on crutches for two weeks afterward. So, during the planting of the Canary Island date palm, he only snipped a set of green and white ribbons that were tied artfully around the tree.

He said at the time: “This is a very good way of doing it. Much better than in Canada.”

President Kennedy was later transported by helicopter from Government House to the airport at the then Kindley Air Force Base following his three days in Bermuda. The conference was heralded as highly successful.

The Canary Island date palm planted by the president is still growing at Government House and is now a fully grown tree.

In 1963, just three days before Kennedy's assassination, Governor Gascoigne and wife, Joyce, visited the White House. They were taken into an anteroom of the Oval Office and shown the Royal Worcester Bermuda figurine which had pride of place there.

The Governor's wife later described the president's assassination as a ‘step back for human kind'.

President Kennedy plants a tree in the grounds of Bermuda's Government House during the 1961 Big Two talks held there with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
Governor George Fergusson visits the palm planted by American President John F Kennedy. (Photo by Akil Simmons)
The plaque on the palm planted by American President John F Kennedy. (Photo by Akil Simmons)
This Canary Island Date Palm was planted by President John F Kennedy when he visited Bermuda two years before his death. (Photo by Akil Simmons)
Governor George Fergusson visits the palm planted by American President John F Kennedy. (Photo by Akil Simmons)

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Published November 22, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated November 22, 2013 at 8:44 am)

Kennedy’s memory lives on in Bermuda garden

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