Seventeen years after John F. Kennedy Jr.'s tragic death in a plane crash on July 16, 1999, his loved ones still wonder how he might have fulfilled his family's political legacy

By Tierney McAfee
March 20, 2017 05:49 PM

Seventeen years after John F. Kennedy Jr.‘s tragic death in a plane crash on July 16, 1999, his loved ones still wonder how he might have fulfilled his family’s political legacy.

In an exclusive interview for the upcoming PEOPLE and ABC special People Icons: Gone Too Soon, his friend and former chief of staff at George magazine, RoseMarie Terenzio, says,“He certainly was considering going into politics at some point.” But she adds that he was determined to make his glossy political magazine “a success” before moving on to his next endeavor.

“More than what he was born into, it’s important that we remember John for who he became and what he accomplished throughout his life,” says Terenzio, the author of Fairy Tale Interrupted and a director at Kivvit, a strategic communications firm in New York City.

“[At George,] he was setting himself up to do the next thing. No one knows for sure what that would’ve been but he always said that he would not move on to the next thing until George was a success,” she explains in the upcoming special, which airs on Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.

“He felt very strongly about not going into any sort of public service or political office without having a success. He did not want to run on his name, he would say. So he had talked about possibly running for governor. And I think he probably would’ve ended up doing that.”

Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News via Getty

“But I think he would’ve had a pretty good shot if he decided to run for president,” she added.

Terenzio also recalls the heartbreaking moment she learned that 38-year-old John, his wife, Carolyn, 33, and her sister Lauren Bessette, 34, were likely dead after the plane he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty

“I got a call from Sen. Kennedy’s office, who told me that they were going to switch the mission from search and rescue to search and recovery,” Terenzio recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ And they said they don’t expect to find them alive.”

When the bodies of John, Carolyn and Lauren were discovered five days after the crash, the world was in shock.

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Terenzio says she was moved by the national outpouring of grief that included people traveling from out of state just to place flowers or a candle outside John and Carolyn’s New York City home.

“It went on for two blocks,” she says. “And it was just this really moving, amazing tribute.”

“And I remember the day of his funeral,” she continues. “We were driving up Park Avenue toward the church and there were thousands of people and cameras. And you could literally hear a pin drop in the middle of Manhattan. It was dead silence. I was shocked by that.”

Terenzio says the impact JFK Jr. was able to make in his short life “speaks to how devastating” his death was.

“It was unimaginable that this could happen to him. And I think people felt that in a really profound way, especially after what happened to his father,” she says of the 1963 assassination of former President John F. Kennedy at 46. “But I think just that hope of what could have been just cracked people in half.”

People Icons: Gone Too Soon, which looks back on the lives of beloved stars, also features exclusive interviews with Patrick Swayze‘s widow, Lisa Niemi; Prince‘s sister, Tyka Nelson; and Whitney Houston‘s friend BeBe Winans.