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Mary Kennedy’s Interview

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Mary Whittlesey Kennedy moved to Oak Ridge as a teenager in 1943 when her mother took a job there. In this interview, Mary discusses her years at Oak Ridge including her high school, school dances, and her involvement in clubs such as “the Penguin Club.” She fondly recalls her time in Oak Ridge. She also remembers her mixed reaction to the news of the atomic bomb and how her opinion has changed over the years.

Date of Interview:
February 6, 2018
Location of the Interview:


Kelly: This is Tuesday, February 6, 2018 and I’m in Fort Lauderdale Beach, Florida. I have with me Mary Whittlesey Kennedy. My first question to her is to tell us your name and spell it.

Kennedy: My present name is Mary Kennedy, K-E-N-N-E-D-Y, but my maiden name was Whittlesey, W-H-I-T-T-L-E-S-E-Y, when I went to Oak Ridge.

Kelly: Great. Talk about who your mother was, and how you found yourself in Oak Ridge, and what year that was that you found yourself there.

Kennedy: In 1943, my mother had had a business college in Knoxville, Tennessee, and she was conscripted to go to Oak Ridge to be a secretary and manage a field. So she moved. I stayed with my grandmother. 

She was the first woman in Oak Ridge to receive a house. My grandmother said I must go, and I didn’t want to go. But it was actually the best thing in the world that ever happened to me. I went to high school there. It was a marvelous experience, because everyone was on the same field. No one had social prestige over another. As teenagers, we had our own rec hall. We had the best teachers in the country. It was the best two years of my life. A wonderful experience. 

Kelly: How old were you when you came?

Kennedy: I was fifteen when I went, and seventeen when I graduated from high school. I was in the first graduating class. 

But I marvel now, looking back on it, how attentive the government was to the teenagers at that time, because they had such an important thing going on. But they made sure that the teenagers were cared for. We had dances almost every night. We had a team. We had drama classes. We had art classes. It was a marvelous school. Even though it was an old building on the top of a hill where the mud, the rain—we would slide into class full of mud. But it was a wonderful experience.

When I was in high school, I thought I wasn’t very bright. I had one chemistry teacher who said, “Mary, you are smart. You should not think yourself just average.” But I did, and I went to college after that and was graduated summa cum laude.

Then when I went back for the ten-year reunion at my high school, I saw why I thought I was dumb. I was there with such brilliant young people, from the greatest minds in the country. I would go there, and they’re college presidents and doctors and coming in on their own. I realized by comparison, I thought I was dumb.

But it was a wonderful time. We had a wonderful few years at that high school.

Kelly: I was just looking at your yearbook, and it seems that you were involved in almost everything.

Kennedy: Oh, yeah. Back then to be popular, you were wholesome, active. I wasn’t so much wanting to be a good person, but I wanted to be popular. [Chuckle] I learned how to make friends, and I was, I was popular. I was well liked. But I loved the people that I worked with.

Looking back, I can see that there were things that would be confusing to me today. For example, our high school was all white. We had famous black scientists who worked in another area, and the young people went to a different school. I wasn’t even aware of all that.

I’ve always said that during the Second World War, I jitterbugged my way through high school. I had very little political expertise. As I grew and learned, I recognized how the government did what needed to be done for the time.

It was a marvelous thing, when you think about how the city went up overnight. As teenagers, we were in an area where we could not leave. Nobody discussed anything. My mother worked in sensitive areas, and I never heard one word from her about what was going on. It was an interesting time in history. I’m very grateful to have been one of the high schoolers going there the first time.

Kelly: Do you remember what your house was like? You said your mom had the first house.

Kennedy: Yes, it was very small, two-bedroom house on Fernhill. The streets were named, you know, the Florida, and all the streets going off Florida were “F.” I think it was 113 Fernhill.

But all the houses were the same. You had three-bedrooms and four-bedrooms and two-bedrooms, but they were all identical. It wasn’t as if some houses were grander than others. It was a darling little house to have gone up overnight. I mean just one day, no house, and then the next day, a whole neighborhood of houses. It was really an exciting time in history. Some of those houses are still standing. A lot of them are still standing, and decorated and landscaped and beautiful homes. But then, they were just prefabs.

Kelly: Do you remember how they were heated? 

Kennedy: No. [Chuckle] I don’t remember. I remember that we had lots of fellowship at the house, and we would always come in after dancing and cook scrambled eggs. But I really don’t remember it. Certainly, it wasn’t air-conditioned. I’m certain of that. But heating, I don’t remember.

Kelly: Where were the dances? 

Kennedy: The government had a recreation hall just for the teenagers. It was a wonderful thing. Everyday after class we would gather, jitterbug. We had our own jukebox, our own soda fountain. There were also a lot of outside dances. We were never short of something to do.

If you remember in Oak Ridge, in the woods there were wooden walks throughout, behind the houses, and you walked on the wooden walks. You could walk almost any place into Oak Ridge down to the town center. There were buses that ran. I don’t know whether everyone went free, but teenagers went free on the buses. We were not at all limited in activities, because I think they didn’t want the teenagers to feel like they needed to go outside the area for entertainment. But it was wholesome and good. It was good entertainment.

I’ve often thought today, if teenagers had a place to gather, get acquainted, talk, there wouldn’t be so much loneliness and indifference to one another. Because if anything else, we learned how to relate to each other, and we learned what it was like to go out into the world. It was a good environment. 

Kelly: Do you remember how big your high school was? How many students?

Kennedy: I think maybe 800 or 900 total. I went when I was a junior, and there was not a senior class. I would imagine that seniors wanted to stay in their own environment until they graduated. But there were eighteen or twenty who graduated mid-year. But by and large, we were a very small school.

One thing I remember: some of the girls in the school wanted to start a sorority. Others of us said, “Oh no, we don’t believe in that sort of thing. We want a group that’s open to everybody.” So a group of us started what we called the Penguin Club. I don’t know why we called it the Penguin Club. But it was for people who were leaders, who wanted the best for the school, the best for the community, and we started that little club. The Penguin Club is still going in Oak Ridge, but it’s become a society club, [chuckle] which is really hilarious. But it was a good beginning. 

Kelly: Your mother came, and then you also had an older brother? Was it an older brother?

Kennedy: Just two years older, yes. He was in the service at the time, and then when he came back, he worked for Oak Ridge. I had a brother-in-law who was a chemist and worked. And another brother-in-law who worked at K-25. They worked at Y-12 and K-25. But it was never discussed. Nothing was ever discussed. We all knew there were important things going on in the war effort, but I had no idea of what was being done.

When I learned after graduation what we had made, I was terribly distressed. Thinking of all the dreadful things of the atomic bomb. It was a crucial time in my life. Many years later, I began to recognize that it was a necessity, and it was essential. But at the time, for a young person with high ideals, it was a crushing blow to me. However, in retrospect, I see so much that I did not see at the time. But it was a painful time for me. 

Kelly: There’s an iconic photograph the day the news came.

Kennedy: Oh, yes.

Kelly: August 6th.

Kennedy: I remember that day. 

Kelly: Yes, do you remember that? 

Kennedy: I remember that day, I do. 

Kelly: What were you doing on August 6th?

Kennedy: I happened to be in the rec hall, because I had decided to go into nurses’ training in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, when that news came out. It was shortly after that that I went to Massachusetts to take my [inaudible] exam. I was going through New York when all the celebration was going on, the V-J Day. I remember that day very clearly.

Kelly: You were alone on a train?

Kennedy: No. The news broke while I was still in Oak Ridge. But I was getting on the train to go to Massachusetts.

Kelly: I see.

Kennedy: It was a difficult day for me. It was mixture. Joy and sadness.

Kelly: When your new classmates in Fitchburg asked you where you came from, did you tell them, “Yes, I came from the hometown of the atomic bomb?” How did that go?

Kennedy: Well, I came from Oak Ridge, and of course, in Massachusetts I was from Tennessee and they liked my accent. [Chuckle] But I didn’t stay in nurses’ training. I went through the probationary period, and I realized nursing was not for me. It was a matter of getting nurses’ training for nothing, because I didn’t realize that I could even go to college.

When I came back, I continued working as a dental assistant, which I had done in high school. I met the cousin of Art Buchwald, Elias Buchwald, and dated him. He was so academically minded. He insisted I go to college. It was because of Elias that then I went into college, and then I was a teacher for many years. It was just the turn of events.

Kelly: Can you explain again who Elias is?

Kennedy: Elias Buchwald was the first cousin of Art Buchwald. He was in the service, he was in the service in Oak Ridge. I dated him. He was a great influence on my life, because he insisted that I go to college. I think I had $300 to my name. He went on the train with me to Tennessee Tech and got me enrolled, and made sure that I took high classes and hard classes. 

He said, “If you make straight As the first year, then they will expect to give you straight As.” His advice, he was just really bright and had the same sense of humor that Art Buchwald had, funny. And a good dancer. He was a light of my life at that time. And a very great help.

Kelly: Were you in college then for the next four years?

Kennedy: I was in college. I finished in three years, and then I received a scholarship to go to the University of Miami to get my Masters. I was a remedial reading expert technician, reading. I majored in remedial reading and English, and taught English and remedial reading for a number of years. In between babies. I had seven children. Married my first husband, and we had seven children.

We had a good life, but I do attribute a lot of my stability and balance to my high school years in Oak Ridge. I have great admiration for whoever planned the city, that they made special consideration for teenagers.

I just celebrated my ninetieth birthday, and I would not take anything for those few years of my adolescence. They were happy years.

Kelly: That’s a wonderful tribute. Fantastic.

Kennedy: Thank you. I have a great love for Oak Ridge and the little town center, the little movie theater, the small, little environment, and the way people came together for the cause they didn’t even know what they were doing. I think that people individually who had an insight into the reality of what was taking place had more to worry about than I did. As I say, I just jitterbugged my way through high school and the war.

Kelly: You mentioned that some of the dances were outdoors? 

Kennedy: Yes, they had tennis courts, lots and lots of tennis courts. At night they would light them up, and we had bands. We had a wonderful man who played records. The teenagers had certain nights on the tennis courts for dancing. The adults had other nights. But almost every night when it wasn’t too cold, there were outside dances on the tennis courts. 

Of course, back then, the high schools always had several formal dances, evening gowns, all that sort of thing. I imagine we had at least ten formals during the year. 

I think one thing that I enjoyed in the community was the community plays. I acted in some of the community plays. That was a way for the teenagers to get acquainted with the adults in the community. There was even planned interaction that way. It was a secret city that grew up overnight, but well planned by someone. I wish I knew who.

Copyright 2018 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.