Every generation has a “Where were you when it happened?” event. For my parents, that event was the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. For my children, it was September 11, 2001. For me and my fellow baby boomers, it was November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot.
I grew up on a farm outside Hampstead, Maryland, which was then just a small, rural town. On that fateful day, I was a 10 year old fifth grader. It was a Friday, just as it is this year—the Friday before Thanksgiving. THE big event held every November in Hampstead was the Elementary School’s PTA Fall Festival—everyone in town came to see the school program, play games, and buy all the PTA ladies’ baked goods.
The theme of that year’s Fall Festival, American Heritage, seemed especially appropriate given that week’s 100 year anniversary commemoration of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, only 30 miles up the road. In honor of that historic event, the two fifth grade classes would recite the Gettysburg Address and sing The Battle Hymn of the Republic during the Fall Festival program.
An extra benefit for kids was that school closed early on Fall Festival day. So that afternoon, my brothers and I were at home, playing in the TV room while our mother ironed and watched her favorite soap opera, “As the World Turns.” All of the sudden, a news bulletin interrupted the show and Walter Cronkite announced that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. Later, a visibly-shaken “Uncle Walter” shared the sad news that our President had died.
As the TV news reporters tried to make sense of what was unfolding in Dallas, the Hampstead Elementary PTA President and Principal were trying to figure out what to do about the evening’s program. Because of its patriotic theme, the school decided to go on with the festival in honor of our fallen President. In our classroom that night, as we waited to go on stage, my classmates and I talked about all we had seen on TV that day. We also talked about Mrs. Kennedy, little Caroline, and John John. We talked about the one dad who was going to complain to the school board because the school went ahead with the program, but concluded, “He’s new in town and just doesn’t understand.”
We filed onto the risers in the auditorium and—all 70 of us—recited Lincoln’s inspired words. Then, as we sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic, I began to have an inkling of how much we were bound together in our Nation’s sorrow. I noticed the mother of a classmate crying as we sang, and then saw others were crying as well. Our Nation’s loss of another President 100 years before took on a more powerful meaning because of the day’s events.
When the program was over, instead of going with their kids from one game or food table to another, the grown-ups stood in clusters, shaking their heads, and talking about our loss. Many of these grown-ups had voted for Richard Nixon in the last election, but the grief they conveyed was profound.
On Monday, when schools were closed because of the President’s funeral, everyone—my family included—was glued to the TV set watching the events. We saw the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, Jackie and Caroline kissing the coffin as President Kennedy lay in state in the Capitol, John John’s salute as the coffin went by, the Kennedy family walking along Pennsylvania Avenue. Each of the four channels we got on our TV set showed the same events, binding us as part of a Nation in grief.
My elementary school classmates and I came to awareness of what government was, and did, by what we saw of the Kennedy administration. His inaugural words—“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—were featured in our second grade Weekly Readers. We heard his TV speech about the Cuban Missile Crisis and experienced fear for our safety. We celebrated with him as our astronauts launched into space. We saw Jackie’s televised tour of the White House. We talked about joining the Peace Corps when we grew up, and we saved the Look and Life magazine pictures of the happy young Kennedy family.
When we took our sixth grade class trip to Washington, D.C., we wanted to see two things: Jackie’s inaugural gown in the Smithsonian, and President Kennedy’s grave at Arlington Cemetery. While there, we saw others who remembered where they were November 22, 1963, and who mourned the loss of something important.
Historians continue to debate the legacy of John F. Kennedy. To me, his legacy was one of optimism and the possibility for good that can come from all of us working together to benefit our Nation and its citizens. That’s what I’ll remember today as our Nation remembers him.