The Coastal Star

Eyewitness to History: Scrappy youth won place in American Camelot

Mel Cottone was on President John F. Kennedy’s staff

as an advance man who helped plan the president’s appearances.

Libby Volgyes/The Coastal Star

Photo was signed by President Kennedy.

Mel Cottone (dark hair, arms crossed) watches the 1960 election returns

as they come in at Hyannisport, Mass.

BELOW: First lady Jacqueline Kennedy signed this portrait for him.

Photos courtesy of Mel Cottone

By Ron Hayes

    John F. Kennedy and Carmelo “Mel” Cottone did not have much in common when they met.

    Jack Kennedy was the son of a multimillionaire businessman and former U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James. 

    Mel Cottone’s father was a coal miner.

    Kennedy was raised on family estates in Hyannisport, Mass., and Palm Beach. 

    Cottone was born in a two-room frame house without electricity or indoor plumbing.

    Kennedy went to Harvard. 

    Cottone was a 1958 graduate of Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.

    Kennedy was a U.S. senator.

    Cottone was a substitute teacher.

    But Jack and Mel did share one thing. They were both Roman Catholic. 

    Growing up in rural West Virginia, Cottone knew well the bitter sting of anti-Catholic bigotry; and Kennedy knew he must overcome it to have any chance of being president.

    John F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago this month, but Mel Cottone is very much here, a Boca Raton retiree still full of that fabled Kennedy-like vigor at 80, and brimming with memories.

    “In January 1960, I got a phone call from a man named Joe Dress, who was involved in Democratic politics in Logan County,” he begins, “and Joe asked me if I would escort Teddy Kennedy around town.”

    Cottone arranged for the senator’s younger brother to meet with a dozen sympathetic residents, and when it was over Teddy asked, “Will you help us?”

    And so Mel Cottone became one of JFK’s unpaid advance men. He was 27.

    “West Virginia was 98.9 percent Protestant,” Cottone explains, “so it became critical to proving his viability.”

    Cottone’s planning and Kennedy’s charm set to work on West Virginia, aided by the candidate’s large extended family.

    “I loved him,” Cottone says. “He just had this ability to relate to the common guy. In April, he met with some coal miners between shifts. At first, they wouldn’t shake his hand. But he sat down on a rail outside the mine and asked them about their economic situation and job security, and when he was done, one of the miners stood up and said, ‘I want to shake hands with a president.’ ”

    Kennedy won the West Virginia primary with 61 percent of the vote. His opponent, Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey, dropped out.

    “I felt like an independent merchant running against a chain store,” Humphrey complained.

    Two months later, Kennedy won the Democratic nomination for president, and Mel Cottone, unpaid volunteer, went on the payroll.

    “I made $100 a week,” he says, “and that was a lot of money. I had a hotel credit card, an airline credit card, an automobile credit card, and I could request $10,000 for ads without having to give a reason.”

    Cottone’s first challenge came in Muskegon, Mich., on Labor Day, the official start of the national campaign.

    “I had to do it all for the press,” he says. “There were no mobile phones then, and I had two great fears — that there wouldn’t be a crowd and the microphone wouldn’t work.”

    Cottone met Kennedy at the airport and rode with him on the eight-mile route to the rally in Pere Marquette Park.

    “Kennedy said to me, ‘Oh, my God, where did they all come from?’ ” he remembers. “To this day I don’t know how we got through the crowd.”

    He pulls out a faded press clipping from the local paper: 50,000 Cheer Kennedy On Holiday Visit Here.

    “I tell people I was an advance man, and they think I mean Secret Service,” he says, still amazed and a little miffed. “In those days, an advance man did everything. Getting hotels, arranging all the transportation. Believe it or not, there was no Secret Service protection for candidates then. I’d go to the local sheriff and arrange for a couple of deputies. I picked the sites for him to speak and set up all the equipment myself. Nowadays, there’s 20 people doing what I did. They have a separate guy just to handle luggage.”

    After Kennedy’s triumphant debates against Republican candidate Richard Nixon that September, the crowds immediately swelled, Cottone says.

    On Nov. 8, 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected president by a mere 112,827 votes, the closest election since 1916. Despite his family’s Palm Beach home, this county voted for Nixon, as did the state.

    JFK went to the White House — and then he went to Dallas.

    “Three weeks before the assassination, I’d been to Texas on a different assignment for the Democratic National Committee, and I wrote a memo saying the animosity toward the federal government was so great it felt like a foreign country,” Cottone says.

    On the day President Kennedy died, he and a friend were in a Merrill Lynch office in Washington when they saw everyone running toward the Teletype machine.

    “I ran to the White House and met Jerry Bruno, the lead advance man. We were in shock. We cried. Our world fell apart. If you know you’re going to be fired in a month, or you’re working for a man whose campaign is not going well, that’s one thing. But this was so totally unexpected …”

    Cottone went on to do advance work for Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 campaign, Robert F. Kennedy and Edmund Muskie.

    “When Johnson was president, I rode on Air Force One once, and I called my father from the plane,” he says. “I told him I was going to Texas, and my father said, ‘Is that near Chicago?’ ” He smiles a sweet, sad little smile. “Not bad for a poor kid who didn’t have an indoor toilet until he was 7, huh?”

    In 1968, while working for the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, he started attending law school at night, driving the 50-mile round trip to Baltimore for four years.

    “I figure I drove 80,000 miles to get that degree,” he says.

    Cottone practiced law in Washington for 40 years and bought a condo in Boca Raton in 2004. He and his wife, Maria, retired there full-time two years ago.

    Now he has a long list of speaking engagements set up in area retirement communities and colleges. He shares his memories, accompanied by a slide show.

    There’s the telegram inviting him to Robert Kennedy’s Requiem Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a note from Ethel, Bobby’s widow, thanking him for his help, another from Teddy, “With my deepest gratitude.” 

    Fifty years.

    On Nov. 22, men and women old enough to remember that day will pause to recall where they were when they heard the news, and wonder where the time went.

    But not Mel Cottone.

    “I don’t wait for Nov. 22 to come around,” he says. “I remember it all the time.”

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