Why we still remember where we were when Kennedy was assassinated

November 19, 2013

Where were you when President Kennedy was assassinated? Fifty years after it happened, those who lived through it still answer that question. But why? Why does that moment still ignite such strong emotions in those who experienced it?

We asked you to share your thoughts on what makes that event resonate in a way few others have.

For some who wrote in to share their stories, it was distinctly personal. John DePerro said he was a student at John Carroll University at the time:

On the day of the procession at Arlington Cemetery I was one of eight ROTC students who marched to the tall campus center flagpole to replicate the graveside 21 gun salute … At exactly the moment the rifles were fired at the grave site we fired. All within a mile could hear and feel the salute. The sound of the rifles echoed off the campus buildings for what seemed like minutes. I shall never forget the loud jarring “crack” sound, the vibration of the rifle stock, the “ping” sound of the spent M-1 rifle shells ejecting and even the smell of the gunpowder.


President John F. Kennedy’s body is brought to the grave site in Arlington National Cemetery. (EPA/Abbie  Rower/National Park Service)

Steve W. recalled:

I was a “patrol boy” in St. Louis in the fifth grade and one of our duties was to raise the flag each day as the students said the pledge of allegiance. Patrol boys proudly wore a distinctive white belting across the chest. Just after lunch I was called out of class along with several others and sent to the flag pole. As the students looked out the window, we lowered the flag to half-mast as the principal told the students over the PA that President Kennedy had been shot and killed.

Even for those who had no direct involvement, however, television made it personal. Nearly everyone recalled how TV brought the assassination into their lives.

“I will never forget seeing the frightened expression on my wife’s face when I got home, still ignorant of events,” wrote Thomas Croft. “She and our 19-month-old daughter were huddled in from of our small black and white TV.”

“My wife called with the earliest reports of shots fired at Kennedy’s motorcade. Then Walter Cronkite reported the devastating news. I was in denial,” said Robert Dorff. “When I tried to pay for lunch, the waiter said, ‘No. A man paid for everyone’s lunch.’ I left the money on the table and went home. Watching TV, reality set in. Then the tears came.”


Walter Cronkite announces the death of President John F. Kennedy. (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Louise Kimmich remembered how she heard the news as a student at Kent State University:

I raced over to the journalism building, where lots of students had gathered. The TV was on, of course, and in those days, there were the old teletype machines. Walter Cronkite was on giving an account of what happened that seemed surreal. … The next three days we were glued to the television, and witnessed the funeral. It was a sad, sad time. I think something of America died that day.

And those who were glued to the television were witness to a shocking turn of events.

“Then, if [the assassination] weren’t enough,” continued Kimmich, “a few days later Lee Harvey Oswald was killed in front of us on TV. That incident was the most bizarre happening of the whole time.”

For those who were young children at the time, the assassination and its aftermath felt like what “V. Blekaitis” described as “the end of childhood innocence”:

For weeks afterwards, I kept asking my father, “Why would anyone want to shoot the president?” I just couldn’t understand it. Subsequent tragedies, like the shooting of students from the tower at the University of Texas, and the assassinations of MLK and Bobby Kennedy, taught me that there are a lot of crazy and violent people in the world, but that was the first such event in my life where it was necessary to be explained to me by my elders that there are people who do horrible things, things that most of us can never fully understand.

David Shein wrote simply that, at 13 years old, “It was the day the world ceased to be a safe place.”

Some said they look at the tumultuous years that followed and wonder what would have been different had Kennedy lived.


Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson takes the presidential oath of office aboard Air Force One just two hours after Kennedy was shot.  To the right is Jackie Kennedy. (Cecil Stoughton/The White House/JFK Library via Reuters)

“I think of Vietnam and Nixon and wonder if they never would have happened,” wrote Michael Stevers. “It still makes me sad to think of that day.”

“When they announced the three shots, I can still remember my heart started to pound. And then when they announced he died, I could not stop crying,” remembered Robert Petrella. “I don’t think I this country has ever been the same. What could have been …”

Eleanor Heginbotham had a unique perspective:

We woke up to the news in our little embassy-leased house in Saigon. One month before there had been another assassination there – Diem and his brother were bound, gagged, shot and photographed on the floor of the car. No one we knew wept about that. However, when OUR president – a Catholic, as so many Saigon families were – was killed there was deep mourning. … We had no television and only the Armed Forces radio, but we were glued to that and to every picture that followed. Particularly because we were in that country on the brink of so much tragedy, we wonder, “What if…”

“E.G.K.” cautioned against indulging these fantasies, writing, “He was good-looking, charismatic, dashing and gave me hope for America as I was embarking on my adulthood … However, 50 years later his glow has dulled. His myth is greater than he was or, frankly, he could have been.”

And yet, for the vast majority who wrote in to share their thoughts, the myth does live on. It’s a moment that, as “Ed” put it, is “burned into my brain.”

See the rest of the responses and share your own thoughts here.

Jessica Stahl is a producer on The Post's audience engagement team.
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Tom Jackman | November 19, 2013