If you are a Baby Boomer, someone born between 1946 and 1964, you were probably asked sometime in the past week, “Where were you when JFK was shot?” The answers spill out from the depositories of childhood memories, high school and college days we knew then. Then the flash back to that day, that November 22, 1963, after which our young lives would never be the same. Media journalists did their best to pin down the meaning of that still unfathomable day. America was never as innocent after that day, never as hopeful or naive, it’s true. We didn’t know it so well then, but we know now how our lives were forever marked by the tragic loss of our youthful and intelligent President Kennedy.
I was sitting in a classroom in my all-girls high school. I was a sophomore and had just turned 16. Sometime around noon, the black-habited sister who was principal of the school burst open the door and quickly shouted, “President Kennedy and Governor Connally have been shot!” Then she was gone.
We must have gasped and been in a daze, wondering what had happened. Perhaps there was a following report over the room’s intercom, but I’m not sure. Then, about an hour later, the principal again flung open the door and cried, “He’s dead!”
And that was how this classroom full of young and innocent Catholic girls, dressed in identical white blouses and blue vests, first heard the news and felt the impact. And then they cried and didn’t stop for three days, and the sisters who were our teachers were crying too and asking why, how could this have happened in this great land of ours.
I don’t remember crying because more than anything I was worried about what this horrible act would mean for our country, whose history and presidents I loved so much. Another assassinated president, Abraham Lincoln, had been my hero since I was in fourth grade and I remembered being driven round and round the great monument to that fallen President in Washington, DC, a little girl waving good by to a towering marble figure. Now I wondered whether “this nation” in 1963 would survive too, would have a government that would continue to be —or at least strive to be — of the people, and not perish from the earth.
Then the human drama swept over us that weekend, murder on live TV as Oswald was shot in broad daylight, the wife alone in the rotunda of the Capitol, the little girl touching the casket, the little boy saluting his father as the casket rolled by in procession, drums tapping out a somber, mournful beat. We were riveted. At my school, we were allowed the rare privilege of TV at all hours to watch the history unfold. We sat in silence before a small set in the second-floor study hall and could hardly talk.
Then, life went on as it had to. We were deep into the 1960s, and I had left the convent school and entered public high school in my small home town of Sheboygan. I went to college and the world was changing faster and faster. Young people changing their minds changed their attire to beads and bellbottoms. I was drawn to civil rights protests, the politics of the Vietnam War, women’s rights as they were becoming known and my own personal journey in journalism and life.
There was optimism, there was hope and there was a future, of course, we believed. But there would always be that stain of November 22, 1963, when the JFK was shot and something else died, too. Still, remembering his words, we had to go on. We were young, after all. In 1969, Kennedy’s promise of sending a man to the moon was realized and it was a wonderful sign that, though he was gone, his vision and dreams could still be ours.