JFK stamp on a boy who missed him

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  • Published 23.11.13
Stamps issued by Ajman, the smallest component of the UAE today, and Chad are part of Ahmed’s collection

Washington, Nov. 22: Shukoor Ahmed was only a year old when John F. Kennedy died on this day 50 years ago. By the time this Indian American was 10 years old, two iconic figures had made lasting impressions on his young mind: Mahatma Gandhi and JFK.

Over time, after spending countless hours in libraries, Ahmed, a resident of Maryland, embarked on an effort to collect stamps, first-day covers, coins and other similar memorabilia issued all over the world in honour of Kennedy. This was his way of reliving the Camelot which he missed because he was born only in 1962.

“As a child, I was very intrigued by some of the exotic postage stamps of Bhutan and Sierra Leone,” says Ahmed. “I also began taking interest in individuals who had made huge difference as leaders. Two individuals who stood out were Gandhi and President Kennedy. I was inspired by them.”

On this 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, which changed America and shook the world, Ahmed’s collection throws rare light on a special way the world paid tribute to JFK, a little known side of the 35th US President’s global appeal.

Nearly 60 nation states issued commemorative stamps to honour Kennedy, most of them within a year of his assassination, making him one of the most popular American presidents at any time and a far cry from recent White House occupants’ standing in the global commons.

Many of these entities which issued the stamps were not even countries when they did so. Ajman, the smallest component of the United Arab Emirates today, was little more than a fishing village under British protection, but ruled by a sheikh when it decided to pay its respects to JFK through philately.

So were Umm al Quwain, Ras al Khaimah and Fujeirah, all parts of the UAE, which was created as a federated country only in 1971. Sharjah and Dubai also issued stamps as did Qatar, whose defence and foreign affairs were managed by Britain at that time.

Gulf historians may conclude that Kennedy’s assassination was a turning point when the rulers and people in the Gulf states switched their long appeal for London in favour of Washington. Compared to the British presence in the region before Kennedy's time, American presence in the region is now ubiquitous.

Davaar Island, near Scotland, no longer populated according to the 2011 census, felt it necessary to pay a tribute to JFK. Sanda Island, now privately owned, also off Scotland, issued a commemorative stamp after Kennedy’s assassination too.

Some of the stamp-issuing countries are known for their philatelic qualities, such as Bhutan and Monaco, which used every chance to issue new, well-designed stamps for every important occasion. Their stamps were snapped up by collectors for many decades.

Ahmed was advised in the run-up to the 50th anniversary to take his Kennedy collection to the US Capitol or to the US Postal Museum for a special display today. “I was not able to invest the time to have a real display and decided a few days ago to take the advantage of technology and have it displayed on social networks,” he wrote in an email yesterday.

Ahmed, who describes himself variously as an entrepreneur, technologist, product strategist, mentor, philanthropist and cricketer, among others, is a Democratic Party activist who unsuccessfully contested in the primaries for a spot in the Maryland legislature three years ago. He has encouraged his young daughters to take to public life at a young age, inspired by Kennedy’s example.

In the run-up to the anniversary here, journalists who covered the Kennedy assassination have been narrating their experiences. Those experiences offer insights into chances that created some legends in modern American journalism.

Although television had arrived, radio was the most popular medium for news dissemination. Veteran TV anchor Bob Schieffer was at that time a night police reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper. He recalled that his brother woke him up from sleep and told him to get to work because the President had been shot in Dallas.

“It was like somebody had just walked in and hit me with a hammer,” Schieffer said. He went to his office and was helping answer phones when a woman called and asked: “Is there anybody there who can give a ride to Dallas?”

Irritated, the reporter replied: “We don’t run a taxi service here and the President has been shot.” She then said that it was her son who had been arrested for shooting Kennedy. Lee Harvey Oswald.

According to Schieffer’s gripping account, “so we drove Mrs Oswald (from Fort Worth) to Dallas. I interviewed her on the way. It was the first story (on her) and both Time and Newsweek bought the quotes and one paid me $50 and one paid me $60.”

He added with satisfaction that “$110 was a big check for me because I only made $115 a week so that was almost a week’s pay”.

Robert MacNeil, who also became a TV news anchor later, had just become NBC White House correspondent. He got out of the press bus that was following Kennedy’s motorcade when he heard shots being fired, shots which killed the President. “I thought, oh my God, I better call NBC,” he said.

The first building MacNeil saw was the Texas Book Depository, where a young man in shirtsleeves directed him to a telephone inside. The reporter recalls with a chill that the young man in shirtsleeves was Oswald himself after he had allegedly shot Kennedy. Oswald worked in the Texas Book Depository.

The stars and stripes were flown at half mast throughout the US today on the orders of President Obama as a mark of respect for JFK. Solemn events at the assassination site in Dallas, Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts and Washington marked the anniversary. The day began with Attorney General Eric Holder paying tribute at the graves of JFK and his slain brother, Robert F. Kennedy, at the Arlington cemetery. Holder now has RFK’s job in the Kennedy presidency.