Letter from past prompts Maine singer to write song in memory of JFK

November 21, 2013
The card Anni Clark received as a response to her letter of condolence to the First Lady. (Photo courtesy of Anni Clark)
The card Anni Clark received as a response to her letter of condolence to the first lady. (Photo courtesy of Anni Clark)

It’s the sound of her boots crunching against the ice-crusted snow that Anni Clark, a fifth-grader at the time, remembers about her walk home from school Nov. 22, 1963.

“It made the silence louder,” she said. No one was talking that afternoon after students were sent home early from Yarmouth, Maine Intermediate School because President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas.

“That crunching sound saved me,” recalled Clark, a singer, songwriter and teacher in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. She focused on the noise her boots made so she wouldn’t cry until she got home.

For the next couple of days, her family, like many across America, sat “glued” to their black-and-white TV set. They were watching when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television.

That upset Clark even more, who ran to her room and found a piece of notebook paper to write about what had happened on Nov. 22. “I’ll never forget this day,” she wrote, ending with, “I’ll treasure this piece of paper.”

And treasure it she did, gluing on a yellow ribbon and hanging the paper on her bulletin board in her room for years, until she packed it away before she left for college.

Singer-songwriter Anni Clark had her note about Nov. 22, 1963 along with a copy of her letter to Jacqueline Kennedy and the White House response framed. (Photo courtesy of Anni Clark)
Singer-songwriter Anni Clark had her note about Nov. 22, 1963 along with a copy of her letter to Jacqueline Kennedy and the White House response framed. (Photo courtesy of Anni Clark)

Clark also joined the million other Americans who sent a letter of condolence to Jacqueline Kennedy. Clark asked her father if he could locate an address for the White House. “He said yes, so in my best 10-year-old penmanship and language, I wrote a condolence letter,” she said.

Clark remembers receiving a reply — a printed card in a hand-addressed envelope (no Zip code in those days) — but years later wasn’t sure what she’d done with it.

Fast forward to 2011 when Clark “got an urge” to go through what she calls her treasure box, a collection of old letters, report cards, blue ribbons and other mementos.

“I almost stopped breathing,” she said, when she found the card from the White House, the piece of paper she’d written her tribute to President Kennedy — complete with the yellow ribbon — and a copy of the letter she had sent to the first lady. Clark didn’t know her father had hand-copied the letter before mailing it back in the day before Xerox machines were commonly available.

“That’s the greatest gift he ever gave me,” Clark said, and it was even more special because he had died in 1999. She admits she was “a puddle of tears” at finding the memorabilia. As the middle child in a family of five kids, she didn’t get a lot of “one-on-one time” with her dad and cherished those moments.

“This was the best one-on-one I could ever have asked for,” she said, finding the letter he’d copied. “I knew he truly loved me and valued me and understood I was special.”

After getting the items framed and hung in her living room, they started “talking” to her. “There’s a song in them,” Clark said she realized, a song that could honor the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination.

Clark had spent 23 years as a full-time singer and songwriter, touring the Eastern seaboard and Texas, until she turned to teaching. She describes herself as “a folk-pop-blues singer with a dash of Maine humor,” or a combination of Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt and Rickie Lee Jones. The Boston Globe said she “has created a deeply personal, acoustic folk and jazz-tinged sound.”

“I didn’t want [any song about Nov. 22, 1963] to be slow or sad or preachy” but to sound like it could have come from the ’60s, upbeat, with a rhythmic pattern, she said.

“I wanted to stay true to that 10-year-old who still lives on in me,” she said.

She recorded “November 1963″ in July and then she shot a music video with the help of her nephew.

The song and video have been getting attention as the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination approaches. Clark is scheduled to be featured on a local television show in Maine Thursday night. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library has archived Clark’s song and video, along with her story about the inspiration behind the song, and digital photos of her framed mementos in the tribute section.

“I shall always remember Nov. 22, 1963,” the 10-year-old Anni Clark had written to Mrs. Kennedy.

Fifty years later, she still remembers, as she sings, “I lost part of the kid in me / in November 1963.”

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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