Emotions run high when people remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. It was shocking, numbing news. And the ensuing events — Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office with Jacqueline Kennedy standing by in her bloodstained pink suit, Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald in front of the television cameras, and a little boy saluting his father’s casket — were broadcast around the world.
This week, everyone will be telling their stories. Jane Pauley presides over a one-hour special that focuses on media coverage of the disaster. "JFK: Breaking the News" premieres on public television stations on Wednesday, November 19. The special includes rarely seen clips, reports from Hugh Aynesworth (the Dallas Morning News reporter who witnessed all three of the dramatic events — the assassination, the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, and the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby), Jim Lehrer (then a cub reporter and now the PBS broadcaster), and Bob Schieffer (host of the CBS’ Face the Nation who drove Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother to Dallas).
Here in central New Jersey, the memories are equally vivid. Hugh Wynne, Princeton University Class of 1939, was Kennedy’s schoolboy chum at Choate and his freshman year classmate at Princeton until the future president took ill and dropped out and matriculated at Harvard a year later.
The late Barbara Boggs Sigmund had just left a job at the Kennedy White House and was living in Princeton, preparing to marry a Princeton University politics professor, Paul Sigmund. (The Boggs/Sigmund wedding would be the capital’s first public gala event after Kennedy’s assassination). Nicholas Katzenbach, assistant attorney general in the Kennedy administration, was responsible for setting up the Warren Commission and would be the attorney general for Lyndon Johnson. Albert Stark, who was an aide to Governor Richard Hughes, helped plan New Jersey’s memorial ceremony.
Even those without a direct connection to then 46-year-old president say that the tragedy affected their lives and careers — and even affected their reaction to later tragedies, such as the September 11 terrorist attacks. All have stories to tell and wisdom to share:
#h#Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General#/h#
"I was having lunch at a fish restaurant with Joe Dolan (associate deputy attorney general)," says Nicholas Katzenbach in a telephone interview from his home in Princeton. A Rhodes scholar and graduate of Princeton University (Class of 1946) and Yale Law School, he was Robert Kennedy’s deputy attorney general in 1963. "We got up, paid, and went to the Attorney General’s office. His secretary was there and she said she thought it was probably hopeless. I went up to my office and started getting calls from Bobby, from Texas, and everywhere."
Immediately after the assassination, while the president’s brother Bobby was still in shock, Katzenbach was the de facto attorney general, and he was the one who pressed to set up the Warren Commission, rather than rely solely on the FBI’s investigation. "President Johnson didn’t want it, initially. He thought he could leave it all to Texas, which was a nutty idea. When he finally decided to have a commission, he thought that the Chief Justice should head it because he was the most trusted man in America," says Katzenbach. "He told me to go over and talk to the Chief Justice, who refused, as I thought he would. But Johnson got him in the White House and asked him, why — if he had served his country in World War II — he would not serve again, and he said yes."
On November 25, three days after the assassination, Katzenbach wrote a now notorious memo, which began: "It is important that all of the facts surrounding President Kennedy’s assassination be made public in a way which will satisfy people in the United States and abroad that all the facts have been told and a statement to this effect be made now."
Some have read the memo as rejecting the problem of conspiracy before the Warren Commission did its work. Questioned at a Congressional hearing in September, 1978, Katzenbach explained, "I was saying you have got a lot of facts here (Oswald a Marxist, had been in Russia, had a Russian wife, et cetera), and if you say Oswald was the lone killer, that he wasn’t in conspiracy with anyone, and that he had nothing to do with any foreign government, you have got a lot of awkward facts that you are going to have to explain, and you had better explain them satisfactorily. You had better put it all out on the table."
"The memo was not well phrased," says Katzenbach now. "But I was very concerned that everyone would immediately think that the Soviet Union was responsible. I couldn’t believe they could be that dumb — we could have had an atomic war. It was impossible for me to believe, particularly after the Cuban missile crisis, that they could be that stupid."
Given the identical situation, he told Congress in 1978, he would recommend another citizen’s commission, and do it the same way. But he says now that it has always been hard to make an airtight case against the conspiracy theory. "The fundamental problem," says Katzenbach, "is that it is very difficult for Americans to accept that someone as popular as JFK could be killed by an idiot. We all want to have some meaning to it all, and the bigger the conspiracy, the more meaning it appears to have."
Katzenbach confirms that, given the chance, he would set up a Warren Commission in the same way. "I have been personally persuaded that the result was right, and I do not think it would have changed any of the evidence that they had that led to that result."
Starting in 1965, Katzenbach succeeded Robert Kennedy as the attorney general, and he continued his support for civil rights — drafting and defending the voting rights bill and the 1966 civil rights bill.
Katzenbach had grown up on Bellevue Avenue in Trenton, and his parents had supported equality in all respects. His father, who had been New Jersey’s attorney general, helped Paul Robeson get into Rutgers. His mother, after whom Katzenbach School for the Deaf is named, served as president of the state education board.
But the civil rights investigations championed by Katzenbach had incurred the ire of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover even before Kennedy’s assassination. "The drive in civil rights exposed the Bureau to criticism, right or wrong," Katzenbach told Congress, "and that was resented by Mr. Hoover. Mr. Hoover resented criticism to a degree greater than any other person I have ever known."
That Katzenbach was responsible for the Warren Commission did not improve his relationship with the FBI, and this led to Katzenbach’s resignation in 1966. At that time Katzenbach said he "could no longer effectively serve as attorney general because of Mr. Hoover’s obvious resentment of me."
Katzenbach continued in the Lyndon Johnson administration as under secretary of state until 1969, and he effectively fought for civil rights. "Kennedy had strongly supported civil rights but he didn’t think he could get legislation at that time, and indeed I don’t think he could have," says Katzenbach. "Lyndon turned out be great at civil rights, perhaps because the ground had been broken, and after Mississippi and Alabama and the bombings in Birmingham, there was a change in the public attitude."
After a stint as vice president and general counsel at IBM, Katzenbach went into private practice and is now semi-retired. He does some arbitration work, and joined the board of WorldCom after its bankruptcy "to try to clean it up." He and his wife have four grown children and six grandchildren.
Katzenbach says the assassination didn’t change him personally, but it did transform the entire justice department rather dramatically. "When the attorney general is the president’s brother, the justice department does more than a justice department would ordinarily do. Why would I otherwise have been involved in the Cuban missile crisis?"
#h#A Chum from Choate & Old Nassau: Hugh Wynne#/h#
A piece of wood on display at the Historical Society of Princeton has special meaning for Hugh de Neufville Wynne. It’s the bannister of the dormitory where John F. Kennedy lived when he was a freshman member of Princeton University Class of 1939.
Wynne had met Kennedy when they were students in prep school, Choate, in Connecticut. "We took a liking to one another and enjoyed hanging around together," says Wynne, who lives in Princeton with his wife Irene and, for two decades, has been the president of Princeton University Class of ’39.
"Jack was a very optimistic, very happy, cheerful individual, who couldn’t help but impress you. I visited his home in Hyannisport on numerous occasions. The old man was into moving pictures and had in the basement of the house rigged up as an auditorium, so after dinner you would go downstairs and see a movie. I crewed with him, on occasion, sailing to places like Martha’s Vineyard."
Kennedy, who enrolled at Princeton along with Wynne, became ill and missed most of his freshman year. Wynne says that his friend was pressured by his father and brother, who were Harvard men, to enroll at Harvard. "I kept up the friendship after he moved into the Senate, but we did not go to his wedding — we were living overseas."
As a geologist with Esso (now Exxon) in Venezuela, Wynne met and married his wife, Irene, in 1941. Wynne had executive positions with Exxon in Argentina, Libya, North Africa, and Spain. As an undergraduate he had been the regimental commander of the ROTC, and, as a reserve officer, he spent World War II in Panama as an aide to one-star and a three-star generals.
By 1963 he was in charge of Esso’s operations in several South American countries and living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. "It was the day I was being transferred to Tripoli, Libya. The Associated Press called me, said he’d been shot. I had my bag packed for the company car to take me to the airport to fly to Tripoli. When they said they didn’t know if he had been killed, I was stunned. They called back and said he was assassinated. That was a terrible shock. I had no choice but to continue with my plans. But it was amazing, wherever we stopped, to see the reaction of the people. In Colombia they were also stunned, and they immediately prepared to memorialize Kennedy with wreaths and flowers."
As a result of the assassination, some company regulations were changed. "The senior officers were encouraged to not follow the same route to their office. Security was increased. You became more alert to what was going on immediately around you."
"After the assassination I didn’t answer questions from anybody. I was so affected that I didn’t care to — not until the author of a book, years later, came to see me, and I helped him with a lot of information about Jack."
"What affected me more than September 11 was Robert Kennedy’s assassination. I thought, `What is this world coming to?’ By the time 9/11 came along it was a whole different scheme."
#h#Geraldine Boone, Civil Rights Activist#/h#
I couldn’t bear it, seeing American flags flying at half staff in honor of our young president," says Geraldine Boone, an 81-year-old civil rights activist. A 1945 Bennington College graduate, Boone earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania and moved to Princeton in 1950, where her four children went to public schools.
"I didn’t have any regard for Kennedy’s father, to tell you the truth. But the Kennedy administration was youthful and exuberant, and I thought that John Kennedy had gotten the best level to work with him at the top," she says. "I was in deep pain for four days and on that Sunday felt I must go to church, which was very unlike me. And I went and found some solace."
She believes that, like the Depression and World War II, the turbulent ’60s inspired commitment: "I’ve always been on the side of the little guy. I was a sensitive little kid, and it upset me to see people in bread lines in the Depression. And then in wartime, I worked as a farm hand for three summers, as part of the war effort. Morale was high.
"When the civil rights movement got under way — an area I felt was morally important, and still do — I immediately volunteered, opening up jobs and helping young people find training. I didn’t like what I saw in regard to the treatment of black people." Boone founded a job center, the Youth Employment Service, and a study center to help young black people in Princeton.
Boone says that September 11 did not take so heavy a toll on her. "My first reaction to 9/11 was how awful. Why do they hate us? How could they do such a thing. But I didn’t see it on the same scale as World War II. You are maturing all the time — I got wiser, for heaven’s sake. You get a perspective. You read a lot. You think. You grow up. I feel that all of us have to be responsible."
#h#Albert Stark, Governor’s Aide#/h#
"I was coming back from lunch with two reporters," says attorney Albert Stark. "I walked into the State House and Maggie Kilgore, an AP reporter, said `you’ve got to come see the teletype.’"
An aide to then Governor Richard Hughes, Stark walked into his boss’s office. "The place was frantic," he says. "The governor said `I’ve got a job for you. Find out what we’re supposed to do.’" Hughes had been very friendly with Kennedy, says Stark, and he himself was a supporter. The son of an attorney, Stark had grown up in Trenton and gone to Dartmouth and University of Pennsylvania law school. "I sat in the seventh row at the inauguration," he says, vividly recalling the steam rising from the stage on that frigid day, as Robert Frost struggled to read a poem in the bright January light.
Emotion aside, Stark’s boss knew the state needed to come up with a formal response to the tragedy, and he had no blueprint. No president had died in office since Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hughes reminded Stark, who went off in search of "the oldest guy in the State House."
He was told to advise the governor to order that all flags be flown at half mast. That done, Stark turned his attention to organizing a memorial service. A decision was made to include the mayor of Philadelphia and the governor of Pennsylvania in New Jersey’s remembrance.
"We had a memorial the following Friday, at Independence Hall," says Stark.
As Stark spoke, just before Halloween, television screens were showing streams of SWAT teams, in black, bullet-proof suits, storming into a Congressional office building, where a screening device had detected a plastic gun in an employee’s handbag. It turned out to be part of a holiday costume, but until that fact was established, helicopters hovered, Congressman were advised to lock themselves into their offices, and scores of police cars stood ready for anything.
In a story that now sounds almost quaint, Stark says that Kennedy’s assassination prompted New Jersey State Police to urge a security officer on Hughes. "He traveled around with only a driver," says Stark.
Hughes turned down the security. "He served until 1968," says Stark. "He never had security."
#h#Cosmo Iacavazzi: Football Postponed#/h#
"It was in the middle of football season, and I was sitting at my desk doing math with the radio on," says Cosmo Iacavazzi, who as a Princeton University junior was the leading scorer in the nation. "They cut into the music to say that shots had fired at the presidential motorcade in Dallas, but that no serious injuries were reported. Just the idea that a president could be shot — the way they said that, I was on edge right away."
"I was so involved with Princeton and football and studies, my reaction was typical of most everybody, just disbelief, that assassinations were in Lincoln’s time, not our time. And then just numbness. The Dartmouth game [which would decide the Ivy League champion in favor of Dartmouth] was postponed from that week to the next week," Iacavazzi remembers.
"It was a scary time. So much was changing from what we had been taught when we were growing up. There was a lot of turmoil on campus. The times became a bit unreal. We didn’t really understand what was going on. We thought you could do anything if you work hard enough, that life was good."
"My class, 1965, was a year before it really got hot and heavy, with the assassinations of leaders — the president, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King. In my generation we were trying to react and respond and get on with life, going to grad schools and raising families."
Late in his junior year Iacavazzi married his high school sweetheart from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and moved off campus. In his senior year he led the football team to an undefeated season. After graduating he played for the Jets for two years and also earned his master’s degree. He worked for Boeing, on Wall Street for Smith Barney and William Sword Co., and was engaged in engineering, real estate, cable TV, and various start-up companies. Last year he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, and currently he is doing marketing and development for the National Football Foundation. He and his wife have three children and three grandchildren.
The news of September 11 came the same way as the assassination news, and his reaction was the same. "I was in my car driving to a meeting when, on the radio they broke in, saying that a small aircraft had hit a tower but there were no reports of injuries. It just didn’t sound right. I thought then, this feels like when I was a junior — unrealistic. Home watching television, it seemed like just a bad movie. In a lot of respects, deja vu all over again.
"My response to the turmoil was to try to work a little harder and focus a little more and I was a pretty focused individual to begin with," says Iacavazzi. How to focus? "I get more intense about what I am trying to do. Family becomes even more dear, when I am reminded of how fragile life is."
"What I’ve found valuable is to be available, to let my children know I’m there to support them. When my boys were playing football and my daughter was cheerleading, I went to their games. My dad owned a trucking company in Scranton, and he made every football game I played, in high school and college. I knew that was unusual as it was happening, but it had a greater impact as I look back on it. The national tragedies just point out how truly special family is, and how we shouldn’t waste it."
#h#Ruth Miller, Retired University Dean#/h#
"It was Friday night, and I was driving down to Gorham on Thames to spend the weekend with a friend who would later be my husband," says Ruth Miller, retired assistant dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. She had just graduated from the University of New Zealand and was working in London as a copywriter at the Sunday Times.
"I had been flipping the stations and was really puzzled. I couldn’t get anything on the radio except orchestral music and organ music. It was dark and raining. I went into the house and said, `Something’s wrong. I simply can’t get anything decent on the radio, and I can’t get any news.’ All we could get on the BBC was solemn music. Eventually the news came on about the assassination. We spent the whole evening huddled around the radio, absolutely stunned. And frightened, in a way. Unsettled is a better word. It seemed like a prelude to something. At that point they weren’t saying who had done it."
"In 1963 I had never thought about guns — nobody I knew in New Zealand had a gun, and I never saw a gun in England," says Miller. "It reinforced my notion of America where guns were too easily available. My immediate reaction was that the Americans will have to get rid of all their guns."
She and her physicist husband would move to Canada, where they had two sons, and then to Princeton for her husband’s job at what was then RCA. A year later he was killed in an automobile accident, and she re-launched her career at Princeton University and met and married her second husband, Bernie Miller, a Princeton Township committeeman.
"The assassination probably formed my views of this country and guns. I wouldn’t belong to an organization that supported guns. But many years ago, when I went to a month-long `women in higher education’ course at Bryn Mawr, a woman who grew up in Montana lectured us about how we simply didn’t understand how guns could be perfectly appropriate, that we all drive cars even though you can kill somebody with a car."
#h#Ingrid Reed, Eagleton Institute#/h#
"I can remember vividly getting a phone call from a neighbor," says Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton New Jersey Project, Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. "I was standing in the kitchen, six weeks from delivering my second child.
"When women are pregnant," she continues, "they rest their arm on top of the baby. I was sort of gazing at my pregnant self, and at my two-year-old, running around and being oblivious, and I was feeling very vulnerable. I thought of JFK and his own family."
The fact that the young president’s children were close in age to her own connected Reed to the tragedy on a personal level. But it, and the political crises that followed, resonated on another level too.
"Bobby Kennedy’s death, Martin Luther King’s death, they all came when I was forming my thinking as an adult," says Reed.
Through the years, the thought that began at Kennedy’s assassination, and continued through the other violent deaths, through Nixon’s resignation, and through the election confusion of 2000, has stayed with her. An alumna of the University of Pennsylvania, she has been a vice president for public affairs of the Rockefeller University and assistant dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. She chairs Trenton’s Capital City Redevelopment Corporation and is a founding board member of New Jersey Future.
"To this day," says Reed, "I have a lot of trust in the system. The Army doesn’t appear in the street. We have the bond of our Constitution. I feel most grateful for that. Johnson was sworn in; Nixon resigned; and the system worked as it was supposed to."
While the 2000 election was up in the air, the country unsure of its next president, Reed experienced "actual physiological symptoms." But in the end, there was an orderly transition, just as there had been 40 years before, when Lyndon Johnson put his hand on a Bible in Air Force One, and swore the oath of office as his predecessor’s widow, still wearing a suit stained with her husband’s blood, stood beside him.
#h#Anne Reeves, Arts Council Founder#/h#
"I know where I was — out on the Great Road in my car with my little daughter Emily — and I know the day was very beautiful," says Anne Reeves, executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton. "I heard the news on the radio, that President Kennedy had been shot, and it was such a shock. On television we saw the funeral, Jackie did everything to make it an extremely beautiful tribute, and of course I remember the little boy saluting. I can see it all vividly."
"Then there was the Warren Report, and because Hale Boggs was on that commission, I knew through Barbara Sigmund and Cokie [Roberts, Boggs’ two daughters], that they were convinced that the Warren report was correct."
"As a citizen you have tremendous concern for your leaders and he clearly was a leader. He was amazing the way he captured people — I think of him in the way I think of Benjamin Franklin. People trusted him and felt he was fresh and new and lively. And his wife had turned the White House around with her flair and interest in world issues. They took their roles as world leaders very seriously."
"As a woman, I feel that Caroline Kennedy is continuing her father’s legacy. She’s using her abilities as a woman to make a difference, quietly and effectively," says Reeves, who is now reading a new book of Jackie Kennedy’s favorite poems, published by her daughter.
Reeves says the event definitely changed the way she looks at the world.
"I feel he’ll be remembered," she says. "That phrase — `Ask not what your country can do for you’ — I think I’ve taken that seriously and I have passed that on to my family. This is a remarkable legacy and even though our three sons — Sam, Charlie, and Neil — were not yet born, I made sure they knew about Kennedy. And I want to make sure all my children vote. I’m well aware that this is not a perfect world, nor is this a perfect democracy, but I still think my vote counts."
We were living in the home of a German family on the outskirts of Nuremberg, where my husband was a first lieutenant in an U.S. Army artillery battalion. In the first year of our stay I had picked up enough German to carry on a conversation and make friends. So when my landlady broke the news, I took my infant daughter downstairs to watch the events unfold on their television. At Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, my husband, then a senior at West Point, had marched in the triumphal parade, and now I was watching the funeral parade. It felt very, very lonely to be so far away.
That day and in the days to follow the Germans I knew — and those I didn’t know — astonished me as they poured out their sympathy. Total strangers came up to shake my hand and look into my eyes and murmur words that translate to "terrible" and "shocking."
Our American president had won their hearts just five months before with his visit to Berlin, beleaguered and divided by the infamous Wall. Speaking from the balcony of city hall, Kennedy had pledged that "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, Ich bin ein Berliner."
Kennedy’s speech was translated sentence by sentence, but he spoke the "I am a Berliner" sentence in German, and 1 million people in the plaza — according to official estimates — cheered and shouted and applauded for what seemed like forever. Whether or not Kennedy would have ever tried to unite the divided country, the Germans believed they had found their hero, and now they had lost him. No other world leader would muster such a response.
#h#Patrick Ryan, Bank President#/h#
Except for the demoralizing season being suffered by the Fighting Irish football team, the fall of 1963 was a great time to be a student at Notre Dame University, recalls Patrick Ryan, now president of Yardville National Bancorp.
And that was especially true for Irish Catholic students. Notre Dame was headed by its dynamic president, Ted Hesburgh. And the nation was led by its first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, a man of Irish descent. Then came November 22. "The memory is very vivid," says Ryan, then a sophomore and preparing to board a train with college friends for a weekend in Chicago when the news broke. "We collectively were stunned in disbelief that our leader could be gunned down."
Growing up in Buffalo, New York, Ryan had known that a Catholic running for president started with a considerable disadvantage. "My father would tell me about Al Smith running in 1928 — he told me about the odds that Smith faced." The assassination of Kennedy wiped out that gain. "It was very personal for us Irish Catholics at Notre Dame," says Ryan. "We shut things down for a few days. The game that Saturday against Iowa was canceled." The only good that came out it, Ryan notes with bittersweet irony, was "that we only lost seven games that season" — Iowa presumably would have made eight.
Camelot soon was over, even for an Irish Catholic such as Ryan. "With experience and age hopefully comes a little understanding," he says today. "I was caught up in the Kennedy moment then. Today I have moved on from that. I am no longer a Kennedy fan — I’m especially not a fan of Ted and what he’s turned out to be."
#h#Don Dileo, Labor Leader#/h#
"I was a junior at Trenton High, and I was in history class. They said they were sending us all home, that something had happened to the president. I turned on the television and learned he was assassinated," says Don Dileo. Dileo says that the Kennedy assassination fueled his lifelong interest in presidential history and politics. He has forged a career as a labor leader and is now political and legislative director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)
The son of a self-employed jeweler, Dileo was drafted into the Army in 1965 and then went to court reporting school, working first for the City of Trenton, then as a secretary to the registrar at Princeton University. As a laborer for the university’s building and grounds department, he joined the Service Employees International Union Local 175 and became president. In 1978 he became the union representative for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and, for years, was president of the AFL-CIO of Mercer County.
"I couldn’t believe it," Dileo remembers. "It didn’t make sense that somebody that powerful could be shot. Ever since then I have been interested in politics and history."
The teenage Dileo had volunteered for Nixon in the presidential campaign but felt close to Kennedy because of his appearance at the War Memorial. "He was young, and brought new ideas, and kids my age were tuned into that presidential race."
#h#Sally Lane, Historian, & Judge Charles Delehey#/h#
Here are the memories of two people whose paths crossed on the afternoon of November 22, 1963. Sally Lane was attending Miss Fine’s School (now Princeton Day School). Her great uncle, Jim Kerney, was the publisher of the Trenton Times, her grandmother, Mary Kerney Kuser, was the chairman of the newspaper’s board, and her father, Arthur S. Lane, was a federal district court judge. Lane would attend Barnard, work as an editor at the Trenton Times, and write a history column for the Times and Trentonian. Now she directs the Trenton Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Charles A. Delehey is a Superior Court judge in Trenton. In 1963 he had finished Rutgers University and was going to law school at Seton Hall, but during the day he worked as court bailiff for Judge Lane.
Recalls Delehey: "Judge Lane asked me to pick up his daughter Sally at school. While I was waiting for her, word came over the radio that the president had been shot. At that time I was 23 years of age, and though I was married and had a child I certainly wasn’t experienced enough to know what to say to Sally."
"That night I attended law school in Newark. And I recall it was an evidence class. It was surreal. We talked about evidence, but no one thought about it. Our minds were elsewhere."
Lane, then 15 years old, remembers hearing the news after getting out of school late on what should have been half day. "That afternoon my father had asked his court bailiff to pick me up. Miss Fine’s school was where Borough Hall is now. You came down the wide steps and there were cars lined up. I could hear the radio blaring. When I opened the door of the car, Chuck said `Kennedy’s been shot.’ I asked him to leave me at my grandmother’s office, a couple of blocks behind the federal building where my father was. And I went into the Trenton Times to learn about it.
"People from the newsroom were watching television in my uncle’s office. I stood there and watched what was happening. I remember the vulnerability of that moment. I don’t want to say it was the end of innocence, or anything too grand, but it was the first time you thought that things are completely outside our control."
"That weekend was also the first time I remember being in front of a TV for a long period of time. The feeling then was that `This never happens’ that American presidents don’t get assassinated.’"
"I also remember watching a lot of TV for the King assassination, with a heightened sense of horror. I am not a believer in the conspiracy theories, but this was the beginning for me of the sense that we can’t be sure what forces are at work."
#h#Rev. Robert Moore, Peace Ministry#/h#
Reverend Robert Moore, executive director of the Coalition for Peace Action and pastor of the East Brunswick Congregational Church, was 13 years old in 1963.
"I was an eighth grader in a classroom in West Lafayette, Indiana. I remember my teacher, her face turning white. I knew something awful had happened and then they started piping in the radio broadcast over the P.A. system and all work ceased.
"I rushed home and turned on the TV, and basically we watched TV for three days. It was such a horrible experience — almost in slow motion — first shot, then dead, then the supposed perpetrator being shot and killed. So it was horrible in terms of the violence. I was raised to see a lot of pretend shooting on TV but this was real."
"Everybody went into a grieving mode — he was a beloved president. We know he wasn’t perfect, but I think he was our last president who was a true idealist. I think he had lifted up our whole country with his vigor and idealism. You just felt that was dying too — not just the president dying, but the whole sense of idealism too. His words — `Ask not what your country can do for you’ — the idealism appealed to me and does to this day.
"I was raised in a Navy family and I was a hawk," says Moore. "One year before the assassination, I wanted the U.S. to blow Cuba off the map." That changed in 1972 during Moore’s freshman year at Purdue, a campus dubbed by one magazine, "a hotbed of student rest"). "I thought Vietnam was a correct war, then when Dow Chemical was recruiting on campus, I saw pictures of napalmed children." The Vietnam years were exacerbated by more assassinations at home.
"In my eyes every human being is equally valuable. The connection that comes to my mind more is this whole spate of gun violence that started back then — Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, President Reagan — those are the things that connect in my mind. So I understood we lived in a violent culture where these things could happen. As H. Rap Brown said, `Violence is as American as apple pie.’"
When President Reagan was shot, Moore was brought back to the JFK assassination. "I didn’t approve of his policies, but I was on my knees praying that night for President Reagan. Nobody wants that for their national leader."
#h#Doug Palmer, Mayor of Trenton#/h#
"I remember it like it was yesterday," says Doug Palmer, mayor of Trenton. "I was in seventh grade in Junior 3. We were called to assembly after lunch. It was a Friday." He and his classmates were told that Kennedy had been shot, and were sent home.
"My parents weren’t home," Palmer recounts. "I walked to my grandmother’s house in a state of shock." His grandmother had long had a picture of Kennedy, cut from a newspaper, hanging on her wall. "It was framed," says Palmer. "A lot of African Americans had Kennedy’s picture on their walls."
Kennedy was seen as a progressive thinker and a champion of civil rights. What’s more, he was young, and he was vastly appealing to young people.
"The only other president I remembered," says Palmer, "was Ike. I thought of him as old, bald Ike." Kennedy, on the other hand, was wed to a beautiful, glamorous woman, and was the father of two adorable children. "I even wanted my hair like his," says Palmer, "he seemed perfect."
While Palmer reeled over Kennedy’s death, he says "little did I know that it was just the beginning." He ticks off the deaths that came along in quick succession, as he progressed from seventh through twelfth grade and went on to Hampton College, graduating in 1973. "Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy. I was on my way to basketball practice when the train carrying Bobby Kennedy’s body came through Trenton."
There were riots during those years; there was monumental violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; families were torn apart over the Vietnam war.
"The good that came out of those years," says Palmer, "was that Johnson really took up the mantle of the civil rights movement and the Great Society, and gave people hope."
Still few people gave Johnson’s portrait pride of place in their homes, nor have great numbers of Americans been moved to accord that honor to any subsequent president.
The long, weary years since 1963 have taken their toll. Political apathy has replaced enthusiasm. It is almost impossible to imagine any junior high school student yearning to copy a president’s style.
Still, Palmer has not given up hope. Increasingly alarmed about President Bush’s incursion into Iraq, he says, "I’m optimistic. Americans will really see what is going on, and will choose change in the ballot box."