Herndon resident Yvonne Kauffman, 84, did not know her photo was in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston until she got a call from a high school friend about two years ago.
It turned out that LIFE magazine photographer Paul Schutzer took a snapshot of the Herndon resident when she heard 35th president of the U.S. speak during his 1960 campaign for the White House.
“A high school friend of mine called me and said guess what? Your picture’s hanging in Kennedy’s Boston museum!” Kauffman recounted from her house on Aug. 31. “I said what? She said yeah. I was so surprised. There were like 12 campaign pictures in the room, and I guess I was one of them.”
In the photograph, Kauffman is simply an anonymous woman with a bob haircut and a cardigan vest pulled over a collared blouse, her arms outstretched to catch a copy of "Profiles in Courage" that Kennedy is tossing into the crowd.
Schutzer’s photo is one of 77 images currently featured in the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of its temporary “American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times” exhibition.
Curated by Lawrence Schiller of the New York City-based Weiner Schiller Productions, the exhibit opened on May 3 to kick off the Smithsonian’s year-long celebration of Kennedy’s centennial. The former president would have turned 100 on May 29.
“American Visionary” will be open at the American Art Museum until Sept. 17 and is traveling to several cities around the U.S., including an opening at the New York Historical Society on June 23.
Thanks to the U.S. Department of State’s cultural diplomacy division, the images featured in the exhibit have also been sent to embassies in Australia, Brazil, China, Ethiopia, Germany, Honduras, Kosovo, Poland, Romania, South Korea, Thailand, and Venezuela, where they will be available through 2018, according to the American Art Museum’s website.
“John F. Kennedy is still seen as a symbol around the world, representing and espousing the best and most universal elements of the American character,” Stephen Kennedy Smith, the former president’s nephew and co-editor of the forthcoming book JFK: A Vision for America, said in an Apr. 21 press release announcing the exhibit.
A lifelong Democrat, Kauffman says that she was a strong believer in Kennedy when he ran for president and continues to think that he served the office well until his presidency was cut tragically short on Nov. 22, 1963.
Kauffman’s journey into photographic history started with a women’s retreat hosted by her church.
At the time, she was a 26-year-old mother living with her husband and a 4-year-old daughter in York, Pa., where she grew up and where she says Schutzer’s photo is located, despite an erroneous placard at the American Art Museum identifying its setting as Texas.
The conversation at the church retreat eventually turned to politics, and the class’s teacher, a friend of Kauffman, suggested that the students read "Profiles in Courage," the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of biographies written by Kennedy and Ted Sorensen in 1955.
When the retreat ended, Kauffman asked her friend if she could borrow a copy of the book to read.
Only when she returned home did she learn that Kennedy was scheduled to stop by a fair held that summer in York, giving her a perfect opportunity to see if the presidential candidate would sign the book before she returned it to her friend.
However, there was one hitch in Kauffman’s plan: when she and her family attended the fair, they were accompanied by her husband’s aunt, a staunch Republican and Richard Nixon supporter.
While at the fair, they all got Nixon campaign buttons, and before going to see Kennedy speak, Kauffman promised her aunt-in-law that she would keep wearing her button.
“I couldn’t tell her my politics, because she’s a very strong woman, but as I inched up in the crowd [listening to Kennedy], I sort of took the Nixon button off and let it fall,” Kauffman laughs.
After Kennedy finished his speech, Kauffman held her copy of "Profiles in Courage" up, and he told her to throw it on stage.
Schutzer captured the moment when Kennedy threw the book back. With her raised arms and black vest, Kauffman stands out from the rest of the crowd. She is flanked by a smiling woman wearing eyeglasses with cat eye glasses and another woman wielding a “Kennedy for President” sign.
What the photo does not show is that, in her excitement, Kauffman did not actually catch the book. Instead, it landed on a shorter woman standing in front of her.
“It fell on that lady’s head,” Kauffman said. “I picked it up, and [Kennedy] was very concerned.”
She notes that the woman came out of the incident without sustaining injury.
Kauffman and her family moved from Pennsylvania to Virginia about a decade later, a transition necessitated by her husband’s work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. After two years in Charlottesville, they settled first in Reston in 1971 and then in Herndon in the 1990s.
A retired church organist who now directs the children’s choir at the United Christian Parish in Reston, Kauffman has five children, including an adopted son from Korea, as well as 11 grandchildren, one great-grandchild, and a 14-year-old pet dog named Muffin.
Though she is not heavily involved in politics, Kauffman frequently helps out at her local polling precinct during elections. Her car’s bumper still sports a “Hillary 2016” sticker along with a rainbow “Celebrate diversity” sticker.
She sees a sharp contrast between Kennedy and the White House’s current occupant, calling the recent political climate “a sad state of affairs.”
“[Kennedy] looked at the people as if – this sounds corny – he really loved them. I mean, he just had that look on his face, and I see the same thing with [former President Barack] Obama,” Kauffman said. “I think a president has to be compassionate. Of course, he has to be strong too, but if he doesn’t have compassion, he’s not going to be a good president.”