The Archivist’s Nook: About That Time Eddie Pryzbyla Nominated JFK

Kennedy signing the Equal Pay Act of 1963 while Margaret Mealy (second from right), the head of the National Council of Catholic Women, looks on, June 1963. The bill abolished wage disparity based on sex. Mealy received one of the pens Kennedy used to sign the bill.)
Kennedy signing the Equal Pay Act of 1963 while Margaret Mealy (second from right), the head of the National Council of Catholic Women, looks on, June 1963. The bill abolished wage disparity based on sex. Mealy received one of the pens Kennedy used to sign the bill.

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 52 years ago this November 22nd. Kennedy, being the first Catholic president in the United States, earned the respect and admiration of many of his American co-religionists. Dorothy Mohler, Associate Professor in the School of Social Work when Kennedy was killed, captured the mood on the CUA campus in her journal entry that day:

The bells in the campanile of the National Shrine were ringing out, not tolling in the usual way yet not ringing with any joyful sound. Students, faculty, visitors, nuns, priests, religious, everyone—began moving toward the Shrine.  Most went into the upper church but some to the crypt and I joined the latter so choked up I could not keep back tears.

Before his tragic death, even before his storied Presidency, Kennedy had his CUA admirers, among them the Chicopee, Massachusetts native, Edward “Eddie” Pryzbyla.  Here on campus, we know Mr. Pryzbyla for the eponymous Pryzbyla Center built in 2003. Pryzbyla, a generous donor with a keen interest in campus beautification, graduated from CUA in 1925 and was an active member of the University’s Alumni Association for decades.

Pryzbyla enthusiastically served on the Alumni Association’s James Cardinal Gibbons Medal Committee. Initiated in 1949, the Medal has been presented by CUA alumni annually* to a person who has “rendered distinguished and meritorious service to the Roman Catholic Church, the United States of America, or The Catholic University of America.”

The year 1956 posed a bit of a problem. The Gibbons Medal committee offered the award to Henry Ford II, who responded that he was “genuinely sorry to have to tell you that I cannot accept these honors.  The fact is that I have already declined similar honors from other American Institutions” and well, given that, it would be awkward to accept this one.[1]

Edward J. Pryzbyla, far right, at one of his many tree-plantings on the CUA campus, 1990.
Edward J. Pryzbyla, far right, at one of his many tree-plantings on the CUA campus, 1990.

Uh-oh.  The committee had a problem.  Mr. Ford had been unanimously agreed upon, largely because of the contribution of the Ford Foundation to Catholic University. Now what? Well, many alternatives were suggested, among them singer Perry Como and actress Irene Dunne. But Pryzbyla had someone else in mind–the then 39-year-old Senator from Pryzbyla’s home state of Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy.

It was not immediately evident that Kennedy receive such an award. A majority of Catholics voted for Kennedy in the 1960 election, but he was far from the figure he’d become among Catholics years later. So Pryzbyla had to make an argument for Kennedy to the other six committee members.  And so he did, in the process giving us a perspective on views of Kennedy among Catholics in the 1950s. “He has served his country since as a Statesman since 1946,” Pryzbyla wrote, “first as a Congressman and presently as a U.S. Senator. During World War Two he distinguished himself as a P.T. boat commander, and his heroic deeds earned him the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart. Recently his book ‘Profiles in Courage’ was published and immediately won him many new friends and admirers.” In lobbying his fellow alum and Committee member Roy Bode, Pryzbyla listed the Senator’s accomplishments and concluded his letter, “So there you are, Roy.  This is quite a guy! And there’s a lot more of him coming, I’m sure.”[2]

Kennedy, it turns out, is the only future president or president ever awarded the medal, so Mr. Pryzbyla was prescient in his nomination. He received the award at the Statler Hotel in Washington, D.C. on November 10, 1956, delivering a speech on the leadership of Cardinal Gibbons, who had died in 1922, saying “he reigned in Baltimore like a king, but he met every man like a comrade.” Kennedy then handed the marked up copy to a John Kelly, who then donated it to the Archives, where it is currently housed.[3]

* The Gibbons Medal was not awarded in 2006 or 2007.


 

[1] Henry Ford II to James F. Kenney, June 25, 1956, John F. Kennedy Reference Files, ACUA.

[2] Edward J. Pryzbyla to Roy Bode, June 1, 1956 and July 24, 1956, Kennedy Reference Files, ACUA.

[3] “Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy Upon Presentation to Him of the Cardinal Gibbons Award, November 10, 1956, Kennedy Folder, Small Collections, ACUA.

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