WASHINGTON — For years, Ted Robinson kept his prized ironwood cane hidden under his bed. On Wednesday, it became a historical artifact when the 91-year-old Robinson donated it to the Smithsonian Institution.
The cane belonged to one of Robinson's Navy colleagues, John F. Kennedy, who used it while he was recovering from a back injury he suffered in a military accident in August 1943.
Kennedy was on board PT 109 when a Japanese destroyer rammed it. Kennedy jumped in the water to drag men back to the hull. Robinson, a lieutenant commander who helped rescue the future president a week later, was the first to speak to Kennedy and 10 other starving, sunburned men.
"Jack was in terrible shape when we picked him up, but he hadn't lost his great sense of humor," said Robinson, who lives in Sacramento, Calif. "He said, 'Where the hell have you guys been? I've been standing at this bus stop for a whole week now.' "
Robinson and Kennedy became friends on Tulagi, a South Pacific island where Kennedy used the cane during his recuperation.
Robinson said there was only one word to describe his former tent mate: hero.
The cane will be in good company, joining one that President Woodrow Wilson used while he recovered from a stroke and another that Benjamin Franklin gave to George Washington.
Robinson, who wrote a book about his experience, signed a document transferring ownership of the cane at a donation ceremony at the National Museum of American History. Officials said the cane would join the museum's division of political history.
As part of his donation, Robinson included a photograph that he took of Kennedy as he leaned against the cane. Kennedy, in turn, took a photograph of Robinson, which is also part of the collection. Robinson, who's a Sacramento County parks commissioner, said he was flattered to be part of an exhibit with Kennedy.
"I liked Jack," he said. "He was a great guy."
David Allison, the associate director of curatorial affairs at the museum, called the cane "a fascinating object" and said it fit well with the museum's goal to "preserve the objects and tell the stories that have defined our nation." The museum includes many famous artifacts, including the Star-Spangled Banner, gowns that the first ladies wore, Washington's uniform and the desk that Thomas Jefferson used when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Harry Rubenstein, the chair of the division of politics and reform at the museum, said Robinson first called him about five years ago, telling him he had a story and material the museum might want.
Rubenstein said the museum definitely was interested because the cane was an important part of World War II and would help tell the story of a watershed event.
"We often forget that these major events are all the result of personal stories of individuals," Rubenstein said. "Some of them are by incredible individuals; others are the everyday folks, people who do incredible and amazing things at times of crisis and need. It reminds us that American history is really those stories. ... They turn the mythic into flesh and blood."
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