I was in a euphoric mood as I rode the bus to school. It was Friday, that was good enough, but I had a date that night, at a party with minimal adult supervision, and as a relatively sheltered 16-year-old, this was too good to be true.
|Courtesy of the JFK Library
Turns out it was.
School was uneventful until right after lunch, when the principal’s words ripped through the loud speaker like a punch in the jaw: “May I have everyone’s attention. I have some bad news. President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. I have no word on his condition other that it’s serious. I’ll update you as soon as I know more.”
I was sitting in my high school Physics class, a precocious junior with relatively few cares in the world until that moment. We now were riveted to the small box above the door, the principal having patched the loudspeaker system into CBS News, hoping for the best, dreading the worst.
Within the hour, our worst fears were realized. We heard Walter Cronkite’s shaking voice announce officially that President Kennedy had died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.
It was Friday Nov. 22, 1963. Fifty years ago today.
The entire class, the entire school, was stunned. I watched my teacher, a Christian Brother who was a strong, bull of a man, burst into tears. I think most of the class did. I can’t remember if I did or not, I was in such shock.
We as a nation lost so much that Friday. It might be the saddest Friday of my life, and it is a day I will never forget.
I could recount the events of that day, of that weekend, like it was yesterday – the limousine, JFK slumped over, Jackie’s pink suit, Oswald, Ruby, the riderless horse, the eternal flame – the images from that horrible time still haunt me. But I’d rather talk about the 35th President and his legacy.
Kennedy was the inspiration the country needed at exactly the time we needed it.
It was the beginning of the 60s. The 60swere brutal. There was social and economic tension here in the U.S. and mind numbing unrest around the world. There was the Cuban Missile Crisis, the cold war, the Bay of Pigs, and one of the gravest racial confrontations the country has ever seen, among others.
John F. Kennedy guided us through it all. With grace. With poise. With eloquence. And with confidence and command.
There was such great promise in this man, such great promise in his leadership. You could say he inspired a generation, and you’d be right. He wanted peace. He wanted civil rights. He wanted compromise. He wanted conciliation. And he was working towards making those happen.
He had a presence unlike any other national leader, before or since. He was a true war hero, young and incredibly charismatic. His voice and its distinctive Massachusetts accent were awe-inspiring. Even more so were his words.
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote earlier this week of Kennedy: “His eloquence was a fire that truly lit the world…”
So true. And his inaugural address might be the top of the list. If you’re not that familiar with JFK, you should watch it. But there are many many more to savor, like this, part of a speech Kennedy gave at American University in DC in 1962:
“I’m talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children.”
Or this, from the speech he never gave, scheduled for the Dallas Trade Mart where the motorcade was heading that fateful Friday:
“We, in this country, in this generation, are – by destiny rather than by choice – the watchmen on the walls of world freedom.”
When was the last time you heard a President, any politician for that matter, talk about world peace? When was the last time any of our purported leaders talked about civil rights? Or equality? All we hear today is a debate about whether we have any rights at all, and which party is going to get their way, citizens be damned.
I’ve certainly grown up a lot in those 50 years, well, grown a lot older anyway. I lost my innocence that Friday 50 years ago, and certainly not in the way I was hoping.
But I keep asking, had JFK lived, would the world be a better place? Would his dreams of world peace have come true? Would citizens be more involved and have more influence over the success of our country? Would we have racial equality? Would people be putting their country above themselves?
The truth is, we’ll never know. And that might be the saddest thing of all.