What follows is an attempt to explain to those who did not experience the events of 50 years ago why it is that we stop, remember and honor the young president who was killed on the streets of Dallas in 1963. Anyone else who was around back then might write a similar account, but I hope mine, and the conclusions I draw from it, can help to explain why even now the wounds remain fresh for many of us, and why it is essential that we mark the occasion in our own ways.
Here in Louisville, Nov. 22, 1963, began as an unseasonably warm and sunny day. By early afternoon, the temperature rose to 71 degrees. At Seneca Junior High School, where I was in the eighth grade, we had physical education in the early afternoon; on this particular Friday we were running track. The night before, I had rushed to finish a book report that was due on the 22nd, and after P.E. I was to make my book report on Robert Lewis Taylor’s The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters in Core class. The book was partially set in Louisville and Paducah during the 1850s had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a few years earlier. In the fall of 1963 a TV series based on it was running on ABC.
Sometime around 1:30 p.m., I noticed that the sunny sky was turning cloudy. A few minutes later, the teacher, who was also the school’s football coach, came out to the track and blew his whistle. He told us to take seats on the bleachers, and we just sat there waiting until he returned shortly afterward. He appeared to have been crying, an unusual sight for he was a stoic sort, about as human as a drill sergeant. He told us that the President had been shot, and that we should head inside to change and go to our next class.
What followed in the next hours, the next four days, exists in real time in my memory. My gym class scattered, and my next memory is of sitting in Mrs. Hoffman’s Core class with the television turned on; schools in Jefferson County had televisions by 1963 because courses like math, history and geography were being taught from the system’s studio at Hawthorne Elementary School. For a brief while, there was confusion on the screen, and in the classroom.
Mrs. Hoffman, a truly gifted history teacher, was clearly so troubled that she didn’t try to maintain much order. Students milled around, talking and drifting to and from the television. Then the word went out that President Kennedy was dead. A scene from Parkland Hospital in Dallas showed two Catholic priests who had been summoned to administer last rites to the President. They confirmed the death. We all became very quiet and gradually took our seats.
My reaction was shock and disbelief, but also a strange fascination with every detail that unrolled before us. At 3 p.m., the bell sounded and the day ended. I don’t believe I ever gave that book report. But rather than head for the bus to take me home, I went to the school library where, on Friday afternoons, I had a volunteer job shelving books and doing other odd jobs. Already at age 13, I was showing a great attraction for books and journalism, and over the weekend passion for the latter grew stronger. Sometime around 4, my mother picked me up and took me home, where we turned on the television. It would rarely be turned off until Monday evening.
Across Louisville, like most cities, people received the news on the job, in the streets or in stores. The Courier-Journal the next morning published a photo of a crowd gathered outside an appliance store on Fourth Street, then the city’s primary shopping corridor, watching the television coverage, each with troubled looks on their faces. Here, as in other places, photos showed people weeping—tears of shock, tears of sadness, tears of anger.
The afternoon grew darker as a cold front approached the city, bringing a steely, steady rain that would continue through the night and all day on Saturday. In Washington, where the weather was generally the same as ours only a few hours later, Saturday would be a mournful, wet day. Then on Sunday, when the outdoor events began, the sky was a brilliant and clear blue and the temperature chilly. By Monday evening, with the burial at Arlington National Cemetery, snow flurries would fall in Louisville.
At the newspaper where I would go to work less than six years later, it was a busy time. The evening paper, The Louisville Times, had rushed a headline onto the “Final Home” edition, the one that was delivered to most houses. It pronounced the President dead, but most of the rest of the front page (which I have saved all these years) carried the same news that had been planned earlier in the day. The Red Flash, the edition that was sold on street corners and in drug stores and contained the final stock prices, had more news about the President’s death. My father brought one of these editions home when he came in from work around dusk. I read it thoroughly.
My near-flawless memories of that day continue to roll along. We pushed our television on a cart into the kitchen where we sat while my mother cooked dinner. (It was Friday night, so we had roast beef and baked potatoes and peas.) News came along about the swearing in of President Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One, and an eerie photo of that scene (it was not televised, of course, this being 1963 when action cams and smart phones were unheard of) was shown on the screen. There was the new President, with his sad-eyed wife on one side and the dazed but elegant Mrs. Kennedy, still wearing the pink suit that was splattered with her husband’s blood, on the other. Around that time word came about an arrest in the case. The identity of Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin was revealed along with an unsettling police mug shot. Later, Oswald would be filmed answering questions. “I didn’t shoot anybody,” he said in his Southern twang.
Just as we began eating our dinner, at the kitchen table, not the dining room table, since this was an unusual Friday night, the cameras focused on Air Force One—live—arriving at Andrews Air Force Base. We saw the whole awkward scene, as Robert Kennedy appeared with Jacqueline Kennedy and the casket. Her blood-spattered suit was shocking. Bobby Kennedy’s face was twisted in anguish. And then the new president lumbered to the microphone and made a short statement. His drawling voice and, let’s be honest, ugly face was jarring. We had become accustomed to something finer. But I will always remember the end of his comments: “I ask for your help—and God’s.”
In those days we spent a lot of time with my grandparents, and Nov. 22 also happened to be their 48th wedding anniversary. We went ahead with plans to drive over for some ice cream and cake around 7:30. I can still remember the steely rain on the streets in St. Matthews. Few cars were out. Everyone was at home watching television.
I could describe the next three days in similar detail, but I won’t. Except for one. On Sunday morning, our family all went to church, as we always did, but especially to pray for the nation. It was a lovely service, and when we came home, we turned the television on immediately. The scene was set in the Dallas Jail House, and Lee Oswald was being led off to some other spot. Before we knew what was occurring, a dark figure scurried across the screen like a rat. The next moment, he fired a pistol toward Oswald, who clutched his stomach and writhed.
The NBC announcer, Tom Petit, cried out, “Oswald has been shot! Lee Harvey Oswald has been shot.” For several years I had watched actors being shot on Westerns like “The Rifleman,” “Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun, Will Travel” and “Wagon Train.” But nothing shook me to the core like this shooting, and I sometimes still lie awake, midway through the night, remembering it. Watching a real murder is unforgettable.
The reason I share all of these details is because I think it is a window—albeit a tiny one— into the reality of the assassination on average American people one autumn day 50 years ago. I was no different from millions of other children across the land. We were growing up in a time of tremendous change and uncertainty. Almost exactly a year before, we had watched the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold, beginning with President Kennedy’s speech warning of the dangers. When that danger passed, our family gradually dismantled the “fallout shelter” we had created in a corner of the lower-level den in our very ’60s split-level house. I don’t think that shelter would have given us a penny’s worth of protection, but we felt as though we were doing our bit to fight the Cold War.
In the wintertime, when we played outside, we heard warnings about nuclear fallout (from above-ground testing) in the snow. I loved to eat snow, so I went ahead and did it, but I never thought it tasted quite as good again. In the summer of 1963, only weeks before he died, President Kennedy secured Senate passage of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban treaty, an important step in the long-process of east-west relations.
I heard a commentator on NPR’s “On the Media” the other day lamenting that the commemoration of the Kennedy assassination was a reprehensible example of how the Baby Boom generation holds onto the national agenda, long after we should have forfeited the stage. I thought a lot about that, and I suppose it’s not entirely wrong. But the fact is that we are the largest population cohort in America, before or since, and we came along just as the mass media (especially TV) exploded in new ways. So if we obsessed—and continue to do so—over the cultural and political icons of our youth, who is to say we are wrong? Other generations seem equally attracted to their icons. Why should we not have the Kennedys, Elvis, the Beatles, Lucille Ball, and the peace movement. The other day at Costco I noticed that shag rugs, certainly the most unattractive design statement of the 1970s, are back on sale. Long live the Baby Boomers!
Beyond that, I do believe that the death of John Kennedy was a cause for national unity, and a moment for national reassessment unequaled by few other events. The fact that those of us who can actively remember it are now in our late 50s and 60s and older means that before very many more anniversaries it is likely to fade away into the history books.
In the meantime, the magazine stands are filled with commemorative editions. It’s not unlike 1964 when Jack, Jackie, Caroline and John-John were on every cover, every week. Bookstores have whole counters of new books on this topic. For all of us who are approaching the Medicare that President Kennedy so ardently wanted to enact, we look back on the 1960s as a time of hope, a time of fear and a time when we were young and without many cares.
President Kennedy, frozen in time at the age of 46, with much promise on the horizon and smiling into the Dallas sunshine, is with us still. Like Peter Pan, he never ages, while all of the rest of us, like Wendy, grow old. There was a wonderful moment when Peter, freed of Captain Hook’s cell, broke loose and cried: “I am youth. I am youth. I am freedom!”
There was a moment, just about a half century ago, when President Kennedy asked, can you fly? I was one of those who tried. I still am trying.
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.
He’ll discuss this commentary at about 1:30 p.m. during Here & Now.
Read his past WFPL commentaries here.