Stanton Gildenhorn remembers the first time he met John F. Kennedy.
It was 1958, and Gildenhorn had stopped at Kennedy’s Senate office on Capitol Hill to pick up a gift from his friend Evelyn Lincoln, the Massachusetts senator’s secretary.
As Gildenhorn and Lincoln stood in the outer office, the door opened and out walked the future 35th president.
Lincoln introduced Gildenhorn, and Kennedy greeted him warmly before apologizing that he didn’t have more time to talk and hurrying off to the next appointment on his schedule.
The brief meeting left a mark on Gildenhorn, who would later work inside Kennedy’s White House.
“He was my hero then, and to get to meet him was one of the greatest moments of my life,” said Gildenhorn, 71, a longtime Montgomery County Democratic activist who lives in North Bethesda.
After Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 election, Gildenhorn went to work for Larry O’Brien, one of Kennedy’s “Irish Mafia,” in a job for the Democratic National Committee.
Gildenhorn conducted political clearance, briefing O’Brien on any objections from Democratic state and local officials or members of Congress to potential political appointees.
O’Brien was an “extraordinary man,” Gildenhorn said.
Gildenhorn’s job brought him into contact with many of the other prominent figures of the administration that would come to be dubbed “Camelot” after Kennedy’s death.
Kennedy had a certain aura about him, Gildenhorn said. When he walked into a room, all eyes turned to him.
In a lifetime spent around politics, he said, he’s never met anyone else with that type of charisma.
The president was down-to-earth, with a good sense of humor, Gildenhorn said. He was a voracious reader, devouring reports and memos.
Gildenhorn said he was aware at the time what a great opportunity he had, but looking back now he realizes how extraordinary it was.
While it was a heady life, it also came with unique challenges.
One of his occasional jobs while working for the Kennedy campaign was to escort several of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s notoriously high-spirited brood of children on outings in downtown Washington, D.C., an assignment that left Gildenhorn exhausted.
“They were climbing up on trees. They were climbing on mailboxes. They were walking into stores,” he recalled.
Gildenhorn’s time in the Kennedy administration ended as abruptly as his first meeting with the young senator had occurred just a few years before.
On Nov. 22, 1963, Gildenhorn was on the campus of George Washington University, where he was taking classes, and was scheduled to report to the White House in the afternoon.
When he walked out onto G Street, people were standing around car radios, five and six deep, listening to reports out of Dallas of the president’s assassination.
By the time he made it the few blocks to the executive mansion, the gates had been locked.
“It was the worst day of my life and continues to be the worst day of my life,” he said.
The White House was in mourning “for months and months and months,” even as Lyndon Johnson rapidly moved most of Kennedy’s staff out and his own people in, Gildenhorn said.
Gildenhorn was among the staffers who were quickly replaced, although he kept in touch with O’Brien, Lincoln and a number of other members of Kennedy’s staff.
He was offered a position as the chief guide at the U.S. pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York, overseeing about 120 guides in 1964 and 1965.
He became an attorney and has worked with a number of groups, including the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee. He carries fond memories of his small piece of an era that captured the country’s imagination.
“These were different kinds of people, and people felt it,” he said.