Trevor Laffan: Heartache, death, and joy, all encapsulated in this one photo

Trevor Laffan comes across a black and white photograph with an interesting story behind it.
Trevor Laffan: Heartache, death, and joy, all encapsulated in this one photo

William Carson and Lee Lawson Stockdale in the wheelhouse of the General McHardy

I CAME across a little story over the weekend that I would like to share with you.

It started with a black and white photograph of an elderly man and a boy standing beside each other in the wheelhouse of a boat and it was taken almost 60 years ago.

It’s the kind of photo that you would probably toss aside if you found it in your drawer, but this one had a name written on the back of it.

Bear with me while I set the scene and I’ll try not to bore you to death — but I need to give you some insight into my family tree first.

To be honest, it’s not a subject I am very familiar with, but I know enough to be getting on with and it’s relevant to the tale. Kind of.

My great-grandfather came from Northern Ireland and I think he came to Cork to work in the maritime industry. Anyway, he had two sons, Michael and Bill Carson, and both of them ended up working on boats around Cork Harbour. Michael was my grandfather.

His brother, Bill, worked on the General McHardy, a naval launch that ferried military personnel around the harbour between Spike Island, Haulbowline and Cobh back in the day. His daughter Peggy is in her eighties now but has all her wits about her and she has a great memory.

Peggy has the photograph in question, and it was taken in the wheelhouse of the General McHardy. The young boy in the photo with the elderly man was wearing her father’s cap and the name Lee Lawson Stockdale was written on the back of it.

Peggy had an idea that he was connected with a visit to Cork by the American Ambassador to Ireland in the early 1960s and she was wondering what ever became of him.

It didn’t take much detective work to discover that the American Ambassador to Ireland at that time was Grant Stockdale. He was appointed to the position in 1961 by President John. F. Kennedy and in May of that year, Mr Stockdale set sail with his family, on the SS America to take up his new post in Ireland.

When they arrived, the SS America dropped anchor outside Cork Harbour. These days we’re used to liners coming right up to the quayside, but back then, things were different. Larger ships remained outside the mouth of the harbour and passengers were ferried ashore on tenders.

The arrival of Ambassador Stockdale created a stir and this visitor was far too important to be sent ashore with regular passengers on an ordinary tender, so Bill Carson was despatched in the General McHardy, along with a welcoming committee, to fetch the VIP and his family and bring them to Cobh.

Mr Stockdale was obviously very impressed with his first view of the harbour, judging by a report in the Cork Examiner.

 “‘This is one of the most beautiful spots I’ve seen,’ said the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, as he stepped aboard the naval launch, General McHardy, from the liner SS America in Cork Harbour to-day.

Grant Stockdale, newly appointed US Ambassador to Ireland, sales of his family for his new post of board that S.S.America. Left to right: daughter Sally 20, son Grant Junior 14, son Lawson 8, wife Alice, daughter Suzy 6, daughter Anne 17, who is sailing with them but refused to pose with family as she was wearing slacks. 5 May 1961, New York United States.
Grant Stockdale, newly appointed US Ambassador to Ireland, sales of his family for his new post of board that S.S.America. Left to right: daughter Sally 20, son Grant Junior 14, son Lawson 8, wife Alice, daughter Suzy 6, daughter Anne 17, who is sailing with them but refused to pose with family as she was wearing slacks. 5 May 1961, New York United States.

“Mr Stockdale was accompanied by his wife, his two sons. Grant (14), Lee Lawson (8) and his two daughters, Anne (17) and Susan (6). The Ambassador was wearing a light green tie which he said was planned and directed specially for the occasion. The children, too, wore green emblems and Susan had green bows in her hair and leprechauns embossed on her dress,” reported the Examiner.

It was while they were on the launch to Cobh that young Lee was photographed with Bill Carson.

As they approached the town, the bells of St Colman’s Cathedral rang out with the American National anthem, the Irish National Anthem and Faith Of Our Fathers.

When the party landed at Cobh, they were greeted by Mr Frank Steele, Chairman of the Cobh U.D.C., and Mr D. J. O’Connor, Town Clerk.

Mr Stockdale didn’t last long in his role though and his time here was short-lived. In February the following year, 1962, there were rumours of his impending resignation, which he denied, but by July, he had returned to the States to manage his business.

He had a close personal friendship with President Kennedy and when he was assassinated in 1963 Stockdale took the news badly. He is said to have cried when he received a phone call informing him his close friend was dead. A fellow worker reported trying to comfort him, but he was inconsolable and unable to speak he was so upset.

Ten days later, Grant Stockdale fell from the window of his 13th storey office. Investigating detectives recorded the death as a suicide and said Stockdale had been in almost constant despondency since the assassination.

The loss of his father had a big impact on ten-year old Lee Lawson and it altered the course of his life. He had met President Kennedy when he was only eight years old and the youngster asked him what he needed to do to become president. JFK apparently advised him to learn his history and mind his mother.

“I was on a path for a political career,” Stockdale said. “Had my father lived, I would have gone into politics, but his death changed all that.” 

He joined the US Army instead, studied for a law degree and eventually became a colonel, serving in Berlin, Afghanistan and the Pentagon.

Today, Lee Stockdale runs a successful law firm in North Carolina and has raised five children with his wife Gail. He enjoys playing electric blues harmonica and wrote a novel, Murder of Law.

That’s what became of the boy who was photographed with Peggy’s dad almost 60 years ago and when she heard that story, it brought a tear to her eye.

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