JFK Jr.'s Death, 20 Years Later: 'He Would Not Want to Be Forgotten'

Liz McNeil

On July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. took off from a New Jersey airport in his single-engine plane, along with his passengers: wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her sister, Lauren Bessette.

About an hour after they left, at approximately 9:40 pm, John encountered a thick fog and lost his bearings. The plane spiraled downward and crashed into the waters off of Martha’s Vineyard, killing all three.

“If John knew he was going to be gone at 38, he would not want to be forgotten,” says RoseMarie Terenzio, a close friend who worked as John’s personal assistant and then chief of staff during his tenure running George magazine.

“It doesn’t get any less sad, and that’s something that will always be,” says Terenzio who wrote about John and Carolyn in her 2012 memoir, Fairy Tale Interrupted. “It’s important that people remember him. He was part of American history.”

Much has been written about John in recent weeks, in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the fatal plane crash. Last week saw the release of a new biography, America’s Reluctant Prince, written by his friend and historian Steven M. Gillon, which revealed a man much more complex than the world knew.

“He said he was two people,” Gillon told PEOPLE earlier this month. “He said he played the role of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., the son of the president. But at his core, he was just John.”

The eldest son of a slain world leader, John “wore his fame and carried his legacy with such integrity,” Terenzio says.

“He understood his legacy and was careful with it,” she says. “He only used it in a way that would benefit the greater good. He never did an interview unless there was a purpose. It was always about what good it would do.”

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From left: John F. Kennedy Jr. and RoseMarie Terenzio in New York City

John was always surrounded by questions about his love life as well as his professional goals and the possibility of a life in politics, as the world watched his every move.

“When he talked about his father, President Kennedy, and the fact there was still interest and curiosity about him, he was proud of that,” says Terenzio. “And I think John would also want to be remembered. He was a public figure and he understood that.”

“It’s more sad if we don’t remember who he was, and who they were,” she says of John, Carolyn and Lauren.

Carolyn, a fashion publicist when she met John, “was quirky and imaginative,” John’s friend John Perry Barlow told PEOPLE in 2017. “She was her own self. The woman everyone has read about is not at all as she was in real life.”

A close friend once said of her and John, who had a famously passionate and sometimes tempestuous relationship: “With her, he was never bored.”

Lauren, described as a rising star at Morgan Stanley and barely a year older than Carolyn, “was so humble yet so smart and poised,” a co-worker remembered this year.

• For more on JFK Jr.’s world and sudden death, pick up PEOPLE’s 96-page special edition John F. Kennedy: An American Life, available now on Amazon and wherever magazines are sold.

At the time of his death, John had become comfortable with the idea that politics was his DNA, just as it had been for his father and uncles before him. In the ‘90s, he remade himself as an editor with George, a magazine which mixed pop culture and politics and made headlines with its covers, including the launch issue with Cindy Crawford dressed as George Washington.

The magazine closed two years after John’s death.

“It was ahead of its time,” says Terenzio, now a strategic communications director at the public affairs firm Kivvit. She and several of her former George colleagues are discussing ways to bring it back via a digital platform or a podcast.

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Looking back, she says of her former boss and mentor, “He was so humble. Whenever he’d walk into a room, he always put out his hand and say, ‘Hi, I’m John.’ Of course everyone in the room knew who he was. It was his way of making everyone feel at ease. He’d look for the quietest person in the room, or maybe someone who looked uncomfortable, and that’s who he would approach. He’d cross the room to talk to someone who might feel like they did not belong. He always supported the underdog.”

“He always rooted for people’s success, no matter who they were,” Terenzio says. “He wanted to lift people up.”