“A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”

When I was in the eighth grade,  it was the first time that anything political had my attention. John Kennedy, my own senator, was running for president. I didn’t know the difference between a democrat or a republican, but I knew I was a democrat because John Kennedy was. The Kennedy headquarters in my town were in what had been a vacant store. It was there I got my Kennedy pins. I still have them. One says, “If I were twenty-one I’d vote for Kennedy.” The other has Kennedy’s face and a third says Kennedy for President. I wore them proudly. For that whole fall, I followed his campaign. I watched the debates. The only thing I remember about the debates is an easel on which was a map of the islands of Quemoy and Matsu and Nixon disagreeing with Kennedy on their defense. On election night I stayed up as late as I could watching the results as they trickled in, but they were too long in coming and I fell asleep. When I woke up, I found out that my senator was going to be President.

I watched the inaugural. I remember the top hats, and I remember Robert Frost and the poem he recited from memory. Kennedy’s inaugural address didn’t make a big impression. I was in the eighth grade and speeches didn’t hold my attention all that long. It wouldn’t be until I was older that I understood the greatness of his speech and the importance of his words.

It was a Friday. We were having a dance that night in the gym. I was going to stay after school to help decorate. I was in the cafeteria when one of the serving ladies told us the President had been shot. We sat there stunned. When the bell rang, we went upstairs to our classrooms, and I turned on the television in mine. Sister Ernestina came in and right away wanted to know who had turned on the TV without permission. I told her I had, and I told her the President had been shot. She sat down without another word. We watched even after school would have been dismissed, and I remember Walter Cronkite announcing the death of the President. The only sound in my classroom was the sound of crying. It wasn’t just the loss of the President but the loss of our President, the senator from Massachusetts, and the loss of our own innocence though we would’t realize that for a while.

We had no dance. Almost everything was cancelled. I spent the weekend glued to the television. I saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot and couldn’t believe what I had seen. I watched the funeral and the salute and the riderless horse so spirited. I remember how tall De Gaulle looked walking behind the cortege. I remember the tears of the crowd. I will never forget.

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26 Comments on ““A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.””

  1. Hedley Says:

    I was 9 years old, my Dad came to pick me up from Wolf Cubs at the First Leatherhead pack and gave me the news from Dallas.

    63 was a tsunami of political collision, cultural and social upheaval. I knew what was happening but perhaps not the significance

    • katry Says:

      My Dear Hedley,
      I was 16 and fully aware of what was happening. I think my whole generation felt robbed in some way, as if the future had been changed for the worse.

      • Hedley Says:

        De Gaulle was hardly popular in 1963, having vetoed Britain’s attempt to join the common market. De Gaulle survived numerous assassination attempts some real and some, well, staged, including the gun fire in Notre Dame Cathedral.
        Leader of the Free French in London, he was more than happy to use the BBC Radio.

      • katry Says:

        I just remember how tall he looked compared to the other mourners with whom he walked.

        I knew he was in England during the war.

        I was never a fan.

  2. olof1 Says:

    I wasn’t born when that happened but I’ve seen it so many time on tv that it feels like Iwere there.

    We always thought things like that never could happen in our little country. Now one prime minister and one foreign minister later we know it can.


    • katry Says:

      I think the death of President Kennedy made my generation wary and distrustful even a little angry.

      All it takes is one person with a weapon so it can happen anywhere.

  3. Pat Says:

    And another written about Kennedy- Phil Ochs – Crucifixion – “On a shuttle from Washington, D.C., to New York, Ochs began singing this folk song with lyrics about JFK’s fall. As he did, Robert F. Kennedy — who was sitting near the back of the two-thirds empty plane — began to cry, suddenly realizing the song was about is brother, according to the documentary Robert F. Kennedy: A Memoir.”

  4. greg mpls Says:

    beautifully written, kat. i was living on an army base in alaska, and
    the entire post was put on alert, we were alittle too close to russia
    and no one knew what was going to happen next. it was a sad and
    frightening time.thanks for a wonderful post.

    • katry Says:

      Thank you, Greg

      I decided the post would be a history of me and my President because I remember so well from when he was running.

  5. Birgit Says:

    I wasn’t born (merely a bunch of cells) when Kennedy was shot, but he is also well remembered in my home country, many commemorative reports on radio and TV stations today. His speech in West-Berlin 1963 is still famous and important in our post-war history. He impersonated the hope for a better future. Well, we all don’t know what would have been if he’d survived. Hopes are not only destroyed by assassins.

    • katry Says:

      I remember that speech and the response of the Berliners. We know he had plans for combating racism and poverty, plans LBJ was able to implement. He had also mentioned getting out of Vietnam, but you’re right: we don’t know.

  6. Caryn Says:

    Hi Kat,
    I remember sitting up on election night and writing down the totals from all the states as they came in. It was something to do with school but I forget what but I remember that my teacher was impressed.
    I remember where I was when I got the news that JFK had been killed. I remember who told me and I didn’t believe him. I had to go ask the principal who was standing out in the hall.
    Though I watched all the rest of it on TV, the only thing I remember about the funeral is the riderless horse and the drums.

    • katry Says:

      Hi Caryn,
      I remember it was too close to call before I went to bed. Now they’d call each state with 4% of the votes tallied.

      The cafeteria ladies heard it on the radio that he had been shot. We watched the announcement of his death on TV. I went to school in Arlington and I remember the bus ride home to Stoneham was totally quiet, an unusual ride.

      I remember quite a bit of that funeral. It was so solemn and so sad.

  7. flyboybob Says:

    I was in High School in NYC when JFK was shot 50 years ago. I remember that weekend as if it were yesterday.

    A good friend of mine was a member of the USA Army band in Washington DC. He told me that the soldier who played taps at Arlington cemetery that weekend was a Master Sargent Clark. He was sent to the cemetery a couple of hours before the funeral. Of course it was cold and while playing taps at the President’s funeral he slurred the high note. Clark was first trumpet in the US Army band which made him the official bugler of the United States. The generals were embarrassed and started a court martial inquiry. The Colonel who headed the band attended because Master Sargent Clark was being accused of dereliction of duty. The Colonel explained to the court marital inquiry board that Master Sergeant Clark did his duty by playing a ‘French’ Taps. He explained that in a ‘French’ taps the bugler slurs the high note to indicate the fallen leader like the missing man formation fly over or the riderless horse. The court martial inquiry bought the story. Afterwards any time someone in the band during rehearsal would mess up a note the entire band would shout, “French taps”.

    My real sadness is thinking what might have happened had Lyndon Johnson not become the President and Kennedy had lived and been reelected. Would we have pulled out of Viet Nam instead of escalating? Would Nixon have not been elected in 1968? We will never know but can only ponder.

    • katry Says:

      That is a great story and kudos to the colonel who headed the band. He came up with a wonderfully believable story. I can’t believe they would have had a court martial-sounds so extreme.

      I think I read somewhere that Kennedy was contemplating removing troops from Vietnam, but I don’t remember who quotes that information.

      There are so many what ifs!

      • Bob Says:

        Of course they wanted to court martial Master Sargent Clark, the army, i.e. the US government, was embarrassed. The funeral was televised live globally by satellite.

        Thinking about what ifs. If my grandmother had wheels she would have been a roller skate. 🙂

      • katry Says:

        The what ifs came to mind from your last paragraph, your wondering what might have happened got me thinking.

        I found out that the story of the court martial never happened. It was a hoax. Too bad-it was a great story.

  8. Beto Says:

    My Dad worked for LBJ and we were supposed to go to the ranch and meet President Kennedy. There was to be a BBQ and deer hunting.
    We had just returned from the cafeteria and the phone rang in our classroom. The teacher answered and said “No, No, No” Then she wept loudly and said “The President has been killed. You must all go home, now.” I left the school and walked the eight blocks home in such silence. People’s doors and windows were open and televisions turned up loud enough I could hear Walter Cronkite and other reporters as I went by. My Mom came home from her shift at the hospital and we watched TV for days….
    We went to Stonewall many times after that but never went back to the ranch. I asked Dad why two years later and he said “Too many spooks son, too many spooks there now.”

    • katry Says:

      I would have been so thrilled thinking I was going to meet the President and completely devastated by his death.

      We stayed in school and watched TV, not able to pull ourselves away. I finally left as the bus ride was about 30 to 40 minutes. We were so quiet all the way. My mother had the TV on when I got home and the whole family watched all weekend.

      Did your father continue to work for LBJ when he was President?

      • Beto Says:

        Yes he continued to work for him but we were never allowed to be anywhere near his involvement. After the 1968 election he was less involved and three years later President Johnson died. My Dad quit the organization and retired from his Civil Service position with an unheard of retirement. 100% disabled military retirement and full early Civil Service.
        He became full time involved with the GOP and Ronald Reagan’s organization and I was active in the SDS Democratic Radicals so it caused a huge falling out.

      • katry Says:

        I would have said how strange your father’s move was from working for a democrat to working with, of all people, Reagan, but my dad switched his allegiance, voted for Nixon and became a staunch republican from then on. That caused friction between us too, and he once called me a pinko communist school teacher ruining the minds of young Americans when I was teaching English.

  9. Coleen Burnett Says:

    Wow. You had to tell her about his death. Just wow.

    In Catholic school you are not usually in a position of power at that age. But you had to tell her about the death of the first Catholic President. From Massachusetts.

    I’ll say it again…wow.

    • katry Says:

      The nuns had lunch in a private dining hall off the cafeteria so they didn’t have the cafeteria ladies and their radio. They came right upstairs to their rooms and still would have had no way to know.

      I had to tell her as I was the one who had turned on the TV which for any other reason would have created a discipline problem for me.

      Sister Ernestina was about the best teacher I ever had at any time in my education.

  10. Jay Bird Says:

    It was Career Day at Catholic Central HS in Troy, NY. My junior year. The gym was full of tables with various colleges and employers. Word of the assassination spread across the large room like a gust of wind. A half hour later, the busses came and took us home.

    • katry Says:

      It was also my junior year, but we stayed a while to watch. I took a public bus from my hometown to my school a couple of towns away. No one spoke the whole way home.

      “Like a breath of wind,” is perfect description.

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