PITTSBURGH — A routine homework assignment for a Westmoreland County sixth-grader over Christmas break in 1959 became a lifetime passion for Steve Russell.
Russell had to do a report on a current event.
Paging through a newspaper, the 11-year-old spotted a short story about a young U.S. senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy who had decided to challenge two Democratic senators, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Wayne Morse of Oregon, for the party’s nomination for president in 1960.
The assignment stirred a fascination with JFK that never waned for Russell, 64, who retired in 2012 as superintendent of Belle Vernon Area School District after a 42-year career as an educator.
"I was not a very good student then. I really had difficulty reading and did not study much," Russell said.
Kennedy changed that, Russell maintains.
Russell’s collection of thousands of pieces of JFK memorabilia — campaign buttons and pins, posters that adorned taxis in Wisconsin, numerous busts, countless books, presidential papers, inaugural portraits, and videotapes and DVDs of speeches — could easily outfit a museum.
As the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death on Nov. 22, 1963, approaches, Russell’s collection will again be used as a teaching tool. It was displayed last week to social studies classes in East Allegheny High School in North Versailles.
As Russell sifts through mountains and stacks of the JFK collection in his Monongahela home, he can explain the origin of each item, Russell said his passion about the 35th president has not waned.
"His election was proof that any U.S. citizen could accomplish anything," Russell said.
Russell marvels at Kennedy’s oratory skills.
"There were nine presidents after John F. Kennedy, and only Ronald Reagan comes close. And don’t tell me (Reagan) was trained as an actor, either," Russell said. "Did you ever see most of (Reagan’s) movies? They were horrible.
"That man (Reagan) was born to be a politician. Like Kennedy, he had a gift," Russell said.
After submitting his Kennedy report in January 1960, Russell submersed himself in the campaign, reading "everything I could get my hands on."
His father, James, a Fayette City native who was a switch-hitting outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1941 until 1947, stoked his son’s fever by attending a local campaign rally for Kennedy. Russell compiled numerous scrapbooks containing black-and-white photographs and newspaper articles of Kennedy’s campaign visits to Southwestern Pennsylvania.
"I remember Dad coming in the door and yelling, "Hey, Bub." As Russell turned the corner, his dad would toss him a campaign button, Russell said.
In 1960, Russell worked at the local campaign headquarters for Kennedy.
"How many 11-year-old boys did you know who had their own key to the campaign headquarters?" Russell said.
His father took him to Kennedy’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1961. Like many others from the Mon Valley who made the trip to Washington, D.C., they caught the train in Connellsville.
"My dad tied it in with an interview for a coaching job with the Washington Senators," Russell said.
The nation’s capital was blanketed with 15 inches of snow before the inauguration.
"My feet were frozen because we weren’t dressed for that kind of weather," Russell said. "My dad put me up on his shoulders" to watch the parade.
Russell treasures the numerous pins, programs and portraits he brought home as inauguration souvenirs.
He can’t forget one of the saddest moments of his life.
"I was in ninth-grade civics class at Rostraver Junior High. We were supposed to have a dance that night," Russell said.
An announcement came over the loudspeaker that President Kennedy had been shot by a gunman in Dallas and had died at 1:10 p.m. Central Time.
"They also said the dance for that night was postponed," Russell said. "A girl in the class asked why they had to cancel the dance, and I turned around to her and said, ‘Don’t you realize the president is dead?’ "
Russell still finds the assassination traumatic.
"I never did get over it," he said.