Kennedy was killed 20 years ago with his wife, Carolyn, and her sister, Lauren, when their plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean

By Adam Carlson
July 16, 2019 09:00 AM
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The memory of it, even 20 years later, almost brings Steven M. Gillon to tears.

It was the summer of 1999 and Gillon, while working at the University of Oklahoma, was dealing with a “health crisis.” That’s when the phone rang one morning, not long after the sun had risen.

In an exclusive clip above from A&E’s Biography: JFK Jr. The Final Year, premiering Tuesday night, Gillon recalls what happens next.

“Stevie, it’s John,” came John F. Kennedy Jr.‘s voice on the other end of the line. The two were longtime friends after they met at Brown University in 1981 while Gillon was a teaching assistant and Kennedy was a student.

That day in 1999, Gillon explained his health issues. Kennedy’s reply was prompt.

“For better or worse, my family is well-connected in New York medical circles. If you need anything, you let me know,” he told Gillon. “You just let me know.”

Then he paused. And as Gillon remembers this, he chokes up still.

“Stevie, I’ll take care of you,” Kennedy said.

A week later, Gillon says in the Biography preview, he woke to learn that Kennedy’s single-engine plane had vanished after Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn, and her sister, Lauren, set off from New Jersey for Martha’s Vineyard.

John Kennedy Jr. File Photos
John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1993
| Credit: Barry King/WireImage
John F. Kennedy Jr. And Carolyn Bessette Kennedy
From left: Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1997
| Credit: Dave Allocca/DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

As authorities would come to discover, the Kennedy plane had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in disorienting fog late on July 16, 1999. All three passengers were killed.

This month, Gillon, a noted historian, published America’s Reluctant Prince — a revealing and nuanced portrait of Kennedy.

“It doesn’t get any less sad, and that’s something that will always be,” friend RoseMarie Terenzio recently told PEOPLE.

Kennedy, she said, “wore his fame and carried his legacy with such integrity.”

• 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.

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In the Biography clip, Gillon says in the immediate wake of the crash he returned again and again to his final phone call with Kennedy.

“John was a wonderful friend,” he says. “All I could think about is this guy who, a week earlier, was telling me he would take care of me — and I could do nothing for him.”

Biography: JFK Jr. The Final Year airs Tuesday (9 p.m. ET) on A&E.