Friday, November 22, 2013

Fifty Years Ago Today ~ The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy

Where were you at the at 1:00 p.m., Central Standard Time, on November 22, 1963?  

At about 11:20, Mountain Standard Time, I left my freshman level United States History class at what was then known as Colorado State College (now University of Northern Colorado) to head back to my dormitory room in Wilson Hall.  I was scheduled to work lunch duty in the dining hall and was happy to get out of class a few minutes early because we had been shown a film that day that ended before class was normally over.  It was a Friday, and I was looking forward to going on a date that night.  I was also happy that it was nearly time to go home for Thanksgiving Vacation which would occur the following week.

As I said, at just before noon, I had been attending my freshman history class, a class I greatly enjoyed that was taught by one of those professors able to make history come alive.  I still have a copy of the book we were using:  The United States to 1865.  I kept it thinking it would be a good resource in my teaching career.  Now, after all these years, I think I also kept it as a tangible piece of my own personal history.  I carried this book with me as I crossed campus that day fifty years ago today.

With the quarter drawing to an end, our professor had nearly finished teaching us the course.  Just days before, it had been noted that it had been 100 years before that Lincoln had given the Gettysburg Address.  On this day, November 22, 1963, at around 11:00 a.m. MST, my classmates and I watched a film about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  Our professor talked briefly about the assassination and the film before he showed the film.  He talked briefly about the hopes that Lincoln had for his second term in office.

 I quote from this textbook some of the words that our professor spoke about as he introduced the film:
In the spring of 1865, when the lilacs opened early and the dogwood spread its pure white blossoms in profusion  Lincoln was hoping that the nation's second birth would be free of complication.*  Our professor did not want us to miss the hope that Lincoln had for the the future of our country when he was tragically killed on April 15, 1865.  

I will never forget that just before the film started, our professor placed a trash can next to the classroom door that led to hallway outside.  He said, "This is for your kleenexes.  The film is very realistic and will cause some of you to become emotional."  He was right.  At the end of the film, I was crying.  I continued to walk across campus with tears in my eyes thinking of that great president who had been shot nearly one hundred years before.  

As I crossed campus, other pathways began to fill with students emptying out of other classes.  I tried to get my emotions under control.  Just as I came to the crosswalk near Gunter Hall and Bru Inn, I saw students coming onto campus from the dorms.  I noticed that those coming on campus were crying.  Finally, I stopped someone and asked what was going on.  I was told that they had just heard that the President had been shot.  "No," I said.  "You probably heard someone talking about the film we saw about the assassination of President Lincoln."  I was told that the news was spotty and the sources not specific, but that it did indeed appear that President Kennedy had been shot.

I continued on in my state of denial.  "This just could not be true.  Presidents don't get assassinated in our country."  I continued walking the short distance to my dorm room and climbed the three flights of stairs to my room.  After I changed into my uniform that I wore to serve in the dining hall, I stood at the window and stared to the ground below as I listened to the news on the radio.  There seemed to be such confusion over what had really happened.  I was all alone in my room.  I heard Walter Cronkite announce that President John F. Kennedy was dead.  I was overcome with grief and disbelief.  Soon, I had to leave to go to work in the dining hall.  I still remember that we were served tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch that day.  It was a Friday.  We were not served meat for any meal on Friday.

I remember I went out on my date that night.  I don't remember who the date was with.  I don't remember who else was with us.  I only remember we went to get pizza, but none of us were hungry.  We were too upset to eat.

I remember I just wanted to go home.  My youthful idealism had been shattered.  I remember that for days, before we all could go home for Thanksgiving Break, all of us sat in the student lounge, the only place where a television set could be found,  and watched the days that followed Kennedy's death unfold on the television screen before us.  Those images will stay with me forever.

Reflections:

In 2007, my husband and I spent the day at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts. We were enthralled with the exhibits and totally overcome with emotions as we end our visit that day after we watched the newscasts that had gone around the nation on the day Kennedy was shot.  We felt as if we had gone back in time as we viewed artifacts from the 1950's and 1960's.  We felt the years fall away as we remembered those time.  Viewing all of the newscasts made it all too fresh for us again.  We both wept.

I was a young 18 year old college freshman when Kennedy died.  Away from home for the first time in my life, my letters from that time reflect a young girl who was trying to make the transition from high school to college, and trying to move from carefree teenage days into a more adult time of life.  In reality, I was woefully unprepared for college and for adulthood.  I was extremely idealistic.

JFK represented a new time in American History for those of us who were born just as World War II was ending.  I had been raised in a family of longtime Democrats.  My paternal grandparents were as dyed in the wool Democratic Party as you could get for the time.  They were active in local politics and served on many committees.  My grandmother was president of the Jane Jefferson Club in my hometown.  Grandpa was an Adlai Stevenson man.  When Kennedy was chosen to represent the Party in his bid for the Presidency, I have not doubt that they supported him because he was loyal to the party.

To me, Kennedy was a bit of "fresh air."  He was not like the politicians that my grandfather talked about.  Kennedy had the "cool" factor.  He was young, handsome, smart, had a great accent, and of course, I adored Jackie Kennedy.  I listened to his speeches when I could, and I felt the hope for the future that he seemed to bring to our country.  I had hope that he would bring great progress to the Civil Rights Movement.

Our country was so different then.  We had a sort of innocence about us not found in today's society.  I have always believed we lost our innocence as a Nation that day when JFK was assassinated.

Now, we know so many things about Kennedy that are not flattering.  In 1963, I believed in Camelot.      I did not see the Kennedy family as royalty, nor did I believe that they should be treated as such, but I did believe that Kennedy spoke of vision, youth, and optimism. At that time, I did not know that a young girl, just about my own age, Mimi Alford, had been his secret mistress.  I did not know that he treated this young girl just months older than I, so despicably and exploited her youth and her innocence. Trying to reconcile the Kennedy that was a womanizer with the Kennedy that the public saw is no easy task.

In the end, I choose to remember the vision that he seemed to transmit to those of us that were young when he lived and died.  I am grateful I was born and came of age in those times that spanned the end of World War II until the day, November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was shot.  I take a line from Kennedy's Inaugural given on January 20, 1961 and say, "Yes, Mr. President, you were right.  I would not exchange places with any other people of any other generation.  Thank you for inspiring us with these words so many years ago.  I believe these words still burn deep in the hearts of many from my generation.

I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.  ~ John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1964.

*References:
Kraus, Michael. (1959). The United States to 1865. United States of America: University of Michigan Press.  

22 comments:

Olga said...

We are left to wonder how things might have been different. It was a time of such changes.

LC said...

Yours was an uncanny convergence of circumstances on that fateful day. Your personal story captures so well the sorrow, confusion and uncertainty of that day and its aftermath.

Jeanie said...

It seems like all of us old enough to remember that day still feel the emotion at a very personal level. I was 16 and I was in a class at school. I've said this in a comment elsewhere, but one of the things I remember most is that when the announcement was made a boy in the class cheered.....the teacher dealt with him in a way that would probably get the teacher arrested today.
Like you, I will never forget the images of the days that followed.

John Paul McKinney said...

I was just two months into my first real teaching job - at Smith College (had had a two year post doc at McGill before that). A student knocked on the door of a small conference room where a few of us were meeting and informed us. The meeting broke up and I went home to my wife and new baby, stopping at the Church that was on my way. An awful time.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

Yes, I was a freshman in college, too -- at Northwestern University near Chicago. We all felt such disbelief, trying to imagine how such a thing could happen. But when Robert Kennedy was shot, the disbelief was gone, replaced only by a terrible sadness that this had happened again. After President Kennedy was killed, our generation suffered a real loss of innocence.

Bossy Betty said...

This was such a defining moment for so many people. Your story and the way you felt in the aftermath probably reflects the story of many others .

Linda Reeder said...

The Lincoln/Kennedy connection that you experienced that day makes for a remarkable story, and certainly a lasting memory for you.
I was in my second year at Seattle Pacific College. I left my PE class and walked across campus to a history class where the radio was on instead of a lecture, not knowing nwhat had happened. I tried to catch up to what was going on - the conjecture, who was shot, who was dead, all of that. I heard that both the president and vice president had been killed. I thought the Communists had finally come after all of those years of duck and cover drills.
Now, of course, we would immediately think of a terrorist attack.
I remember well that long, mournful weekend watching the one dorm TV and listening to the radio. The second shooting by Oswald, capturing him , his being shot by Jack Ruby. One thing after another. the funeral. Then years of speculation and conspiracy theories.
Yes, innocence was lost. And unfortunately the killing did not end there. 1968 was another terrible year.
I realized today that neither kids in school today nor most of their teachers were alive 50 years ago and have very little connection to these events.

BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I wrote about this today, too. Like you, I walked from class to my dorm without understanding what I'd heard. I was away from radio and television the first couple of days, but went home early for Thanksgiving and there I caught up on the news and all the vivid images. What I admire most about Kennedy these days (besides the obvious youth and good looks) is his incredibly elegant and learned manner of speaking. He really raised the level of presidential speech-making for a time. And I do think he might have achieved a few things of lasting benefit to the country had he lived longer.

Perpetua said...

I too remember this day so vividly, Sally, even though I lived an ocean away. I was 17 and doing my homework with my younger sister at the dining-room table. "Get it done on Friday and then you have the weekend to yourselves" was my mother's refrain.

She came in to say that the news of President Kennedy's death had just been broadcast on TV and I remember all programming being halted and solemn music being played. The next day my sister and I went by bus to visit our elder sister and the assassination was the main topic of conversation wherever we went.

Arkansas Patti said...

I too believe we lost our innocence that day and our feelings of security became uneasy. Suddenly no one was safe.
He was my first president, the first one I had the opportunity to vote for. He so resonated with those of us who were young an eager to tackle the world and make it better.
Those events are still crystal clear today.

DJan said...

I remember that time, too, so vividly. The aftermath of the decade that followed this awful day changed me, changed our country forever. The sadness that I felt for weeks after this day is still there, still able to overcome me if I let it. Let peace come to us in the decades ahead, I hope. I pray.

thisisme said...

Excellent post to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that terrible, tragic day. All our hearts went out to America, and we just couldn't believe it either. There has been a lot of programmes this week about the Kennedy family, and I have avidly watched them all. Such a tragic family, with so many shocking deaths. Who can ever forget the image of Jacqueline Kennedy, in her shocking pink suit, climbing onto the back of the limousine. Apparently, the reason why JFK stayed sitting up, even after he had been shot, was because of the back brace that he was wearing at the time. You are right, it was such a hopeful time. It wasn't until later, of course, that we learned that it wasn't quite the Camelot that we were led to believe.

troutbirder said...

Well said, Sally. I too was in college a senior at Minnesota. I think as much as anything he was the reason I chose to be a teacher rather than follow my fathers footsteps into banking....

Jeanie said...

I was in 7th grade English class. I can't remember if our teacher told us or if it came on the PA -- I just know it was a rainy day and it was so odd when my mom picked me up from school. I watched the whole thing -- the first of my marathon news watching periods (I should have known then.) Yes, innocence was lost, much as it was on 9/11 for the kids of Kevin and Greg's generation. I wonder what would happen today -- how we would find out in a school -- with everyone seemingly plugged into twitter or texting... So much has changed. And yet, not enough.

Kay said...

They always talk about the eerie similarities between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, but you experienced that first hand.

I remember that terrible day too. I was in high school. Math class. Morning. Our teacher suddenly stopped class and asked someone to find a radio. And then he told us. I remember walking home in a daze, disbelieving.

Beautifully written post, Sally!

Deb Shucka said...

This is an amazing the-day-Kennedy-died story. Once of the most powerful. What a wonderful piece of writing this is, Sally.

Weekend-Windup said...

Love the way you have written...

Rose said...

What an eerie coicidence to have just watched a film on the assassination of Lincoln moments before you heard the news of Kennedy's assassination. I was a freshman in high school, sitting in English class, when the principal came to the door and told our teacher the news. I have vague memories of us going to the gym for an impromptu assembly and then being sent home, all of us in shock and disbelief. For the next few days, the television was on all the time in our house--a rarity--as we watched news reports and then coverage of his funeral. I so agree, it was the day I and everyone else of our generation lost our innocence.

In April, I visited my daughter in Dallas for the first time and went to Dealey Plaza and School Book Depository Museum. Every memory came flooding back as if it had happened only weeks before, not 50 years ago.

I had forgotten many of Kennedy's quotes, other than the usual, but I love the one in the poster image here. We would do well to take this to heart today.

Rick Watson said...

I just popped over from Jackie's blog.
Love your blog.
Rick, your latest follower.

I Wonder Wye said...

I was five, but remember as if it were yesterday sitting in front of the tiny B/W tv watching the solemn ceremony as they progressed to the Capitol…I re-watched with fascination all the documentaries and shows that were aired the past week and read the TIME issue…..our fascination and sense of loss over what might of been will never fade...

Cape Cod Kitty said...

An amazing recollection on that momentous day in history, and such a coincidence with the Lincoln assassination study in your class.
I had the same reaction as you after visiting the JFK Museum. I waited many years to do it, and will always be happy that I shared it with Dad. Such a beautiful building and view, not to mention the way it takes one right back to the point in time of his death. Very powerful.
LM was friends with the Kennedy's and was living in Hyannisport at the time. Really devastating.
You are right about JFK being so different than our usual politicians, and he DI bring that breath of fresh air.
Thank you for these wonderfully poignant memories.

Maggie May said...

I can remember the sudden news of it rocked us over here in England too. Well, all over the world , I should imagine.
The shock of it ..... I can remember it now.
We have had programmes recently in memory of him.
He was a good man.

Your post was very well written.
Maggie x

Nuts in May