Remembering the Assassination of President Kennedy

John_F_KennedyMost of the current affiliates of the Marquette Law School are too young to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. But for those of us who do remember it, it is a date indelibly stamped in our memories. As part of the nationwide effort to mark the 50th anniversary of that tragic event, I share my memories of that day, and I encourage others to do the same.

I was in the 6th grade at King Johnston Intermediate School in Pearisburg, Virginia, in November of 1963. Although President Kennedy was extremely popular with my classmates, my family members were not especially big Kennedy fans. My parents had supported Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, and I don’t think that they had ever gotten past the idea that Kennedy had won the election because he was rich, handsome, well-connected to power, and willing to say whatever it took to get elected.

Still, I was shocked when I heard that he had been assassinated. Although I prided myself on my knowledge of current events, I don’t think that I knew that the president was in Dallas that day. I knew that presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley had been assassinated in the past, but I doubt that I ever had entertained the idea that a president in my own time could meet such a fate.

At the King Johnston School, we had all of our classes except band with the same teacher in the same classroom. My Class, 6-A, met in a room on the second floor near the staircase, and my teacher’s name was Mrs. Mary Dillon. It must have been around 2 p.m. or possibly as late as 2:30 on Friday afternoon, when Mrs. Lilly, Principal Cruise’s secretary, came to the door and motioned for Mrs. Dillon to leave the room. I can still clearly remember Mrs. Dillon reentering the room and telling the class that she didn’t want anyone to get too upset, but the president had been shot. She told us that she did not know if he was still alive or not. I remember that we were all stunned, and I think that she told us just to put our heads down on our desk and rest until it was time to go home. It was already late in the day and the school buses were probably already on the way.

I don’t remember receiving any more information about the assassination, but I do remember thinking that the principal Mr. Cruise would say something over the loudspeaker, but he did not. Before too long, we were discharged from class at the regular time, shortly after 3 p.m. I walked home as I always did, but I remember hearing over and over from people leaving the school that the president was dead. When I got home, I started to tell my grandmother, who lived with us, that I thought that the president had been killed, but she had already heard the sad news.

Everything else surrounding those events is something of a blur. I know that we watched the coverage on television that evening and the next day, but I don’t remember much else. I do remember going to church on Sunday morning, two days later, but I cannot remember if the Rev. Hankins preached about the assassination, although I am sure that he must have. I do remember going over to my friend Charlie Edwards’ house after Sunday dinner to watch the Redskins game. I remember being vaguely surprised that it was not on television, but being eleven year olds, we decided to go outside and play touch football. (As it turns out, the NFL made the controversial decision to go ahead with its games—the AFL cancelled theirs—and the Redskins actually scored a rare victory over the Eagles.)

During our game another friend showed up and told us that Oswald had been shot. By that point, everyone in the country probably knew the name Lee Harvey Oswald. While we were accustomed to seeing dozens of people shot on television every week in that era of the western and the detective show, it seemed surreal that so many famous people were getting shot in real life. As I recall, we accepted the news and continued playing touch football for another hour or two.

Other than what I have just recounted, I remember very little about the events of the next few days. I know that we didn’t go to school on Monday, but as far as I can remember, after that, sixth-grade life picked up where it had left off. I remember going out for youth basketball and getting picked for one of the four teams (for the first time) in early December. The next public event that I remember with clarity was the Bears beating the Giants, 14-10, in the NFL championship game at the end of December, and then the Beatles showing up on Ed Sullivan the following February.

I do, however, have one other JFK-related recollection. In June of 1963, the Hollywood movie, PT 109, was released to theaters with considerable fanfare. It starred Cliff Robertson as President Kennedy, and it told the story of the president’s heroic actions during World War II. In that era, there were only so many copies of each movie, so new movies usually started out in large cities and then made their way down to less populated placed. It often took four to six months for a popular new movie to make it to a rural village like Pearisburg (pop. 2400).

As luck would have it, PT109 was scheduled to open at the Pearis Theater, the week after the Kennedy assassination. I don’t know how the decision was made, but another movie (a western, but I don’t recall its name) was substituted for it. I assume that no one was ready to see a movie about the president so quickly after the assassination. As I recall, PT109 was not shown until sometime the following summer, and I do remember going to see it.

I think almost everyone over the age of 10 who was alive on November 22, 1963, remembers exactly where they were when they heard about the death of President Kennedy. And I assume I always will.


This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Jane Casper

    I was a freshman at Oconomowoc High School in Mr. Jacobson’s English class, right after lunch, when the principal came over the loudspeaker and told us all that President Kennedy had been shot. We didn’t know at first that he died, just that he had been shot in Dallas. The news cast was carried over the loud speaker for the remainder of class time. It was later in the day when another announcement came over the loudspeaker that the president had died. We stayed in school through the end of the day. For the next three days everyone seemed to just stay at home watching black & white tv coverage. There was no school on Monday. The most vivid memory I have of those four days is the coverage of the funeral when Jackie Kennedy leaned down to remind her three-year-old son John-John to salute the flag as it passed—the flag that was on his father’s casket.

  2. Nick Zales

    I was at my 5th birthday party. I do recall adults talking about something, but what it was I was not sure. I think they decided to spare a bunch of little kids the bad news. Ever since, on November 22nd, I am aware of what happened. Most people don’t remember. However, with this 50th anniversary they can’t miss it. Has it really been 50 years? It makes me wonder if I will ever see another JFK in my lifetime.

  3. Kristin Hoffman

    Professor Hylton,

    I enjoyed reading this post about your recollections and personal memories surrounding the Kennedy assassination. While reading your post, I could not help but think of the world-changing event that occurred when I was in sixth grade–9/11. Like you, I remember the sixth grade team I was on and the teachers I had when we found out, as well as the vivid details of that day. After lunch, we spent much of the afternoon watching CNN in my social studies teacher’s classroom.

    Certain events can leave such strong imprints in our minds. Thanks for sharing.


  4. Irene Ten Cate

    I want to add my thanks to all the contributors. Speaking as someone for whom President Kennedy’s assassination has always been a historical fact, your recollections have made that day more “real” to me.

    In the same spirit, I’d like to share an audio recording I came across earlier today, which documents the announcement of the news at a Boston Symphony Orchestra matinee. If you can spare the time, the subsequent performance of the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony is worth a full listen.

  5. Bob Miller

    Here is is 10 years later than the initial Post. I was a freshman at Arlington State College (now UTexas at Arlington). I missed the first hour of my chemistry lab to stand in the rain in the parking lot of the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth to hear JFK speak for maybe 10 minutes to a crowd of 1000s at about 8:30 AM CST. I was not a supporter of his but was thrilled to hear him speak. In 2013 I found a photo of JFK with me standing no more than 4 feet away at the center of the photo. I now use it as a profile pic on FB. I was shocked to hear he had been shot, right before my last afternoon class. Then devastated when we heard he died. I cried all the way home as the prof said he could not continue to teach that day and canceled class. It made me change my whole way of thinking. For me it was indeed a loss of innocence.

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