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Unraveling the mystery of the old wooden desk carved with "JFK"

It seemed too good to be true: An old wooden desk carved with the initials "JFK" from the private school in Connecticut where John F. Kennedy studied as a boy.

That's because it was.

The desk was the centerpiece of a new exhibition in November at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston devoted to the 35th president's early years, even though the museum put it into storage in 1993 after school officials said it was clear to them the desk wasn't Kennedy's. It had been displayed from 1979 to 1993 as Kennedy's desk from Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Connecticut.

"I said, 'Oh boy, here we go again,'" Judy Donald, Choate's archivist since 2001, said Monday.

The story begins in the 1970s, when the wife of a former Choate teacher offered the desk to the school. Choate turned down the offer, knowing the desk wasn't authentic: The style of desk wasn't in use during the time Kennedy attended, from 1931 to 1935.

The woman then donated the desk to the museum.

Meanwhile, Kennedy's former roommate at Choate wrote to the museum's then-director, Dave Powers, in 1977 assuring him the desk belonged to his boyhood friend.

"There is no question in my mind that this was Jack's desk," Lem Billings wrote, adding that Kennedy carved his initials in everything.

The desk went on display.

But in 1993, Lee Sylvester, Choate's archivist at the time, told the museum the desk certainly was not Kennedy's.

Sylvester wrote in a letter to the library, "We should have taken the thing when it was offered to us and burnt it on the spot!"

A library official replied that the desk was in storage and would not be displayed again.

But in November the desk re-emerged, with museum officials saying it was among items never before displayed. Donald emailed museum curator Stacey Bredhoff.

Bredhoff said the desk's history was news to the museum's staff. They weren't aware of the 1993 correspondence, and the person who replied to the letter no longer works at the museum. Even veteran staff members didn't recall the desk having been on display.

"We weren't 100 percent sure," Bredhoff said. "What we said in the exhibit is that it was believed to have been used by JFK."

But the desk's style - not in use until the 1940s - cast doubt on it being Kennedy's, she said.

The museum has since updated the description that accompanies the desk. It says, "The desk, which comes from Choate, is presented here to evoke Jack's life as a high school student." The letters about it are now on file at the museum.

"I'm glad it wasn't burned for kindling," Bredhoff said. "It's still from the place where he spent time and it helps to tell a little more about his story."

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