Crowds Honor Kennedys on J.F.K.'s 77th Birthday

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under a sparkling noontime sun, U.S. military officers and a larger-than-usual crowd of spectators Sunday commemorated what would have been President John F. Kennedy's 77th birthday with ceremonies at his hillside grave site at Arlington National Cemetery.

"Today we remember an important birthday, and we recall here that the torch has been passed on to us," Army Lt. Col. Albert Isler said in a brief ceremony atop the marble steps leading to Kennedy's grave and to the eternal flame lighted by his widow 31 years ago.

Attendance at the ceremony, which is held every year, swelled to about 300 people, in part because of the recent death of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; several Memorial Day visitors placed flowers on her week-old grave earlier in the day.

As the crowd looked on, Army officers set a red-, white- and blue-flowered wreath from President Clinton in front of the stone grave site where Kennedy's body rests alongside his widow, their infant son and a stillborn daughter. A bugler and drummer from the Army Band played taps.

A spokeswoman for the cemetery said no members of the Kennedy family were expected to come to the grave site, but Kennedy's former personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, visited early Sunday morning.

Spectators, some from the Washington area and others visiting from distant parts of the country, said they came to pay their respects to the former First Lady and to remember the promise and optimism she and her husband represented.

"I came to pay tribute to him and Jacqueline and say a prayer for our country," said Kathy Withowski, a child-care worker from Arlington, Va. "There was so much truth in what he said."

Withowski said she was only 5 when Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, but "as I get older, I feel even closer to his life. If only he didn't go to Dallas." She held a small U.S. flag, which she placed on Kennedy's grave.

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