On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. On November 25, 1963, his funeral procession made its way through Washington. On his third birthday, John F. Kennedy Jr. (or “John John”) stepped forward and saluted his father’s casket as it passed by.
United Press International photographer Stan Stearns captured the famous image just in time. He had intended to take a picture of Jackie Kennedy (JFK’s wife) as the casket went by. Crowded by the 70 other photographers at the scene, Stearns did his best to focus in on Jackie. He watched as she leaned down to John Jr. and whispered something in the little boy’s ear.“The hand went up. Click — one exposure,” Stearns told The New York Times. “That was it. That was the picture.”
But how did a three-year-old boy know to salute his father? Well, it wasn’t exactly intentional. Before the start of the funeral, Jackie pulled Lynn Meredith, the Secret Service agent for Caroline and John Jr., aside and told him to keep John Jr. entertained. A three-year-old wouldn’t be able to make it through the duration of the funeral, she explained. Meredith took the young boy into a separate room, where they met military escorts for the casket. At a loss for how to entertain such a little kid, Meredith and the escorts decided to teach John Jr. how to salute. “He kept wanting to do it with his left hand, and we had a heck of a time getting him to use his right,” said Meredith. When the funeral was over, John Jr. and Caroline went outside to the front steps of the cathedral to watch the procession on its way to Arlington. Since the children would not be going to the cemetery, it was their last chance to say goodbye to their father. That’s when John Jr. stepped forward.
“As the caisson was rolling out to Arlington Cemetery I asked every photographer I could if they had the salute. Duh! Nobody saw it. Everyone I talked to had been concentrating on Jackie and the caisson,” said Stearns after taking the picture of John John’s salute. Instead of joining the other UPI photographers at the cemetery like he was supposed to, Stearns walked the film back to the bureau. “When I walked in the office George Gaylin (Washington Newspictures Manager) almost had a heart attack. I have never seen a man that mad. He turned red then white. Yelling and screaming that I did not go to Arlington. I kept telling him I had THE PICTURE of the funeral. He was yelling that he had rolls and rolls of film from ump-teen photographers covering the funeral,” Stearns recalled. The General Manager grabbed Stearns by the collar and said, “You better have the picture of the funeral or you’re fired.” Stearns could hear Gaylin pacing and muttering outside the darkroom as the image developed. After the negative was washed and dried, Stearns took the image to Gaylin’s desk. “He does have the picture of the funeral!” Gaylin yelled, getting up to take the image to be enlarged.
Meredith continued to be the guard for Caroline and John Jr. for 10 months after JFK’s death. He was so involved with the Kennedy family that his own children wore the Kennedy children’s hand-me-downs. During his time as a Secret Service agent in the months following JFK’s death, Meredith reflected on memories with the President. The last time he saw Kennedy was that November in 1963. Meredith and his wife had just welcomed their daughter Diane Leslie into the world, and Meredith had brought cigars to the White House to celebrate. However, he decided to avoid offering one to the President due to the Kennedy’s recent loss of their own son Patrick. As Meredith walked past the swimming pool, Kennedy climbed out and saw Meredith standing there, awkwardly holding cigars. Meredith offered one to Kennedy, explaining the celebration, and Kennedy graciously took one and gave his congratulations.
The day after Kennedy’s funeral, the day after Meredith had taught John John how to salute, Kennedy’s secretary found a gift meant for the Meredith family. Kennedy had autographed an engraving of the White House for the newborn, writing “To Diane Leslie Meredith, with very best wishes. John Kennedy, Nov., 1963.”