More than 25 years after Carl Elliott left Congress, John Kennedy Jr. and his sister, Caroline, appeared on the cover of Parade magazine.
Nominees were needed for the first Profile in Courage award, named for a Pulitzer Prize winning book their father had authored in the 1950s. The headline of the article was “Help us find a hero.”
“I read it that Sunday morning and I said to my husband, ‘There is one person I know that fits this criteria, and that’s Carl Elliott,’” said Mary Jolley, Elliott’s longtime friend and assistant.
Elliott, then in his 70s, was still saddled with debt from his failed campaign for governor in 1966. He had refused to declare bankruptcy, choosing instead to pay his creditors half of what he earned at his law practice in Jasper.
Elliott’s health had begun to fail in 1975, when he was diagnosed as a diabetic. He had been confined to a wheelchair since 1988.
Elliott had also been devastated by the deaths of his son in 1977 and his wife in 1985.
In 1990, the year the Profile in Courage award was established, Elliott was living alone as a renter in a house he once had owned.
Although he was attended to by family and loyal friends, he was nearing his third decade of political and social exile.
When a reporter from the Boston Globe came to interview Elliott in 1989, he stopped to ask for directions to his home and was told that the former Congressman had been dead for years.
Elliott, a historian at heart, gave little thought to how he would be remembered by future generations.
“He said that history would be the judge of whether or not his life had meant anything. He was content and happy for that to occur. He did not worry about that,” Jolley said.
Recognition far beyond what Elliott had ever dared to imagine came when he was selected out of a field of 5,000 nominees to be the first recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
Shortly after the announcement was made, Elliott told The New York Times that the award and its $25,000 stipend “mean a lot to me psychologically. And it will mean a lot in being able to eat for the next few years.”
Elliott received the award on May 29, 1990 — Kennedy’s 73rd birthday — in a ceremony held at the presidential library in Boston.
Members of the Kennedy family, including Sen. Edward Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, presented him with the award, which was crafted by Tiffany & Co. in the shape of a ship’s beacon.
Sen. Kennedy praised Elliott as being “cut from a different cloth. He met the great political and social challenges of his day head on, risking the wrath and braving the insults of his constituents.”
Kennedy noted that Elliott’s political courage “is all too rare in any era in American history. But it is especially rare today, when so many elected officials are catalyzed by public opinion polls, mesmerized by special interest groups and terrorized by thirty-second spots.”
In a short acceptance speech, Elliott reaffirmed his belief in every American’s right to a quality education.
“When the Good Lord distributed intellectual ability, I am sure he did so without regard to the color or station in life of the recipient. I dedicated my public life to insuring that the sons and daughters of the working men and women of this nation would have the opportunity to achieve the highest level of education commensurate with their ability, unfettered by economic, racial or other artificial barriers,” Elliott said.
Elliott’s only hint at the price he had paid for his ideals was his final remark to the crowd: “There were those who said that I was ahead of my time, but they were wrong. I believe that I was always behind the times that ought to be.”
Onassis, then an editor at Doubleday, took special care of her husband’s contemporary throughout his stay in Boston. Over lunch the day of the ceremony, she encouraged Elliott to write his memoirs.
“When we got back to Jasper, I walked in the house and the phone was ringing. It was Mrs. Onassis saying that she had a writer and he was coming in a couple weeks to start working with him. She made that happen immediately,” said Lenora Cannon, Elliott’s daughter.
Co-author Michael D’Orso lived with Elliott for eight months while helping him write “The Cost of Courage,” which was published in 1992.
The award and release of his autobiography brought Elliott national attention. In addition to media requests, Elliott was flooded with letters from people whose lives had been touched by the legislation he had championed.
“He got so many letters from people saying, ‘I never knew who to thank. I was the first person in my family to go to college. Some sent money, $1 or $20. It was never a huge amount, but it was so touching,” Cannon said.
Elliott died in January 1999, less than four months after the passing of his political nemesis, George Wallace.
For one final time, Elliott’s name appeared in the pages of national publications. Some might not have reserved space for him at all if not for the high profile recognition the Kennedy family had bestowed upon him less than a decade before.
“I believe that award gave him a sense that history was going to treat him pretty well. I think he died knowing that it was on the way, and it was going to be OK,” Jolley said.