Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, has covered state government and politics for more than 30 years.

Minnesota Matters: Duluth nun's art intended for a president

Posted by: Lori Sturdevant Updated: September 17, 2013 - 4:15 PM

Two months before President John Kennedy went to Dallas in November 1963, he had a pleasant overnight stay in Duluth. Next Tuesday, the 50th anniversary of a trip made precious in memory by the assassination two months later will be marked in a variety of ways in Duluth and remembered by other Minnesotans connected to that event.

One of those Minnesotans is Jack Puterbaugh of Minneapolis. Fifty years ago, he was a young staffer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working for then-Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, a former Minnesota governor. He was also an occasional advance man for trips by President Kennedy. That brought him to Duluth a few days before Kennedy's scheduled appearance at the Land and People's Conference, a multi-state meeting about natural resources sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And that brought him in touch with Sister Constantina of the College of St. Scholastica and her stained glass art. They're central to the story he shared with me last week.

Before he could even say hello to the event organizer in the host city on Sept. 20, future federal appellate Judge Gerald Heaney, Heaney announced, "The thing with the nun is out."

What thing? Sister Constantina Kakonyi of the St. Scholastica faculty, a Cold War exile from her native Hungary, had created a hammered copper and stained glass work of art to present to President Kennedy. Called "Northeastern Minnesota -- Strong and Beautiful," it includes five images in an oblong panel. She had made it for this conference as a gift to the president.

Heaney said Kennedy's policy was not to accept any artifacts as gifts.

Puterbaugh visited St. Scholastica, met the artist, saw the stunning work, and went back to Heaney. "It's really good, and we can't do this to the sister. We have to think of something," he said.

Several argument rounds later, the art was back in the program. Freeman would accept it on behalf of the president.  But that plan was foiled when the band at the event struck up "Hail to the Chief" out of turn. The presentation had been inadvertantly skipped.

Back in Washington, Puterbaugh prevailed on the White House to send Sister Constantina its apology, which it did, with a photo of the president that Kennedy inscribed to her. He tried to get her work hung in the Department of Agriculture, without success. Instead, it hangs today at the St. Scholastica library, where it's bound to receive a little extra attention next week on the might-have-been anniversary of its presentation to a president. 

Two months later, Puterbaugh was again an advance man for Kennedy. He was in the motorcade on Nov. 22, and saw the mortally wounded Kennedy carried into Parkland Hospital.

He wasn't as eager to share that story. I can understand why.

Photo: “Northeastern Minnesota – Strong and Beautiful,” by Sister Constantina Kakonyi, 1963.

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