I was in Ms. Adamiak’s fourth grade class at Washington Elementary on November 22, 1963 when we heard the news over the PA system that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. We were being sent home early that day, perhaps in the hopes that our parents would know what to say. But it seemed no one really had words that day, only tears.
I remember worrying about what would happen to the United States without a president. I remembered watching President Kennedy on our black and white television as he sought to reassure the nation during the Cuban missile crisis. I remembered him at the Berlin wall, confronting Communist repression. I remembered that inaugural speech and those ringing words, “Ask not what your country can do for you….” I remembered seeing him, so seemingly young and vital during a campaign trip through the Youngstown area a few years earlier. My mother assured me that Lyndon Johnson was now president and fulfilling the responsibilities of the office.
This hit Youngstown, as well as the rest of the nation, quite hard. Recently, I saw this media clip of WKBN interviews with people on the streets of Youngstown on that day. I remembered the day as cloudy and dismal, and so it appears in the video. It matched the mood as our hearts were filled with grief and disbelief.
This was perhaps the first national tragedy that had us glued to our television sets. We watched as Walter Cronkite wept. We saw footage of the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson, and of Jackie Kennedy nearby, still spattered with her husband’s blood. We watched the horse-drawn caisson bring Kennedy’s body to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda, the riderless horse with boots reversed, John-John saluting as his father’s body passed, a moment where the tears flowed again. And more horror as Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, was himself murdered by Jack Ruby while cameras were rolling. Then, following a funeral mass, with the widow, Jackie Kennedy in black with her children, we watched the procession to Arlington Cemetery, and Kennedy’s burial.
We returned to school the next day. Life seemed to resume its rhythms. But I think for many of us who were alive at that time, something died in our hearts with President Kennedy–whether it was dreams of Camelot, of a better society with guarantees of civil rights, care for those in poverty, and technological progress captured by reaching the moon by the end of the decade.
In many Youngstown homes, and in my own room, you could find framed pictures of President Kennedy, sometimes cut out from a magazine or The Vindicator. I can’t remember doing that for any other president before or since.
The world changed that day. It seems that we took a much more violent turn that has continued down to this day, as it seems we rarely get much of a respite from another report of gun violence.
This is not a happy memory for any of us alive in Youngstown at the time. But it is part of our stories. We all remember where we were when we heard the news. This, too, was part of growing up in working class Youngstown.
“Johnny, we hardly knew ye.”