On November 22nd, fifty years ago, I was an 8th grader home alone from school with a bad cold. Mid-morning I turned on the television to watch some old soap opera, but instead saw nothing but views of empty banquet tables. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing, and it took quite awhile for the sound to warm up so I could hear what was being said. When the sound finally came on, I was shocked to hear that President Kennedy had been shot. A short while later, they announced his death. What a terribly sad time for all of us. For me, that heartbreak certainly marked the end of my innocent idealism of childhood.
It’s incredible to realize that 50 years have gone by since that horrible happening and that defining moment in my own life. Even after 50 years, the pain is still present and I’ve had difficulty with all the recent books, news reports, magazine articles, and so many photographs published in remembrance of that tragedy. Especially the photographs we were shielded from at that time. It was a kinder time that way.
The death of this young president was a very personal loss for me. Rather than dwell on the memories of the assassination, I’ll share some of the reasons I felt his death so deeply.
When President Kennedy was elected, I was at a very impressionable age, and I was completely captured by this young and vibrant president and especially by his beautiful wife, Jacqueline. With her elegant fashion sense and her love of the arts, she became my role model. A book I adored during that time was called I was Jacqueline Kennedy’s dressmaker, by Mini Rhea. I poured over the drawings of dress designs, and loved reading about Mrs. Kennedy’s style and elegance. Photos of me at the time show her influence on my own style of dress… I remember reading that her philosophy was “simplicity is elegance.” And, oh, she was elegant! But even better, she loved literature and art, and so did I…
My family and I always enjoyed watching Jack Kennedy’s speeches and news conferences. He had such a wonderful sense of humor, and I remember we watched news conferences and the state of the union addresses together because they were so entertaining as well as informative. On my shelf I still have a little book from 1965 called The Kennedy Wit, compiled and edited by Bill Adler, full of those humorous answers, comments, quips and jokes from throughout his presidency. An example of his wicked sense of humor was his famous statement at the White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners:
“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Many people, young and old, were deeply inspired by President Kennedy’s inauguration speech:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
I took that eloquent call to action very seriously, too, and a few years later I was accepted into the American Field Service exchange program, and spent a year as a student in Argentina, immersing myself in a different culture and truly becoming a “citizen of the world” through that experience. So much of who I am now is directly tied to that pivotal year in my life. Click here to listen to President Kennedy talking with a group of AFSers in 1961.
As I remember the death of a president fifty years ago, I revisit the powerful influence President and Mrs. Kennedy had on my own life. When I remember the Kennedy years, I also remember me and my own ‘beginnings.” The memories are vivid. So this is a poignant anniversary and a loss I still feel deeply after 50 years. It is not “history” to me … It is “story.”