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Remembering President Kennedy’s assassination

Teresa Fralish | Friday, November 21, 2003

In the early afternoon of a sunny November Friday, immediately following a typical school lunch featuring tuna boats, I sat in the third seat from the front along the row of windows in my seventh grade classroom. I liked that seat where I could glare out at the railroad tracks beyond the parking lot and the dairy farm on the other side of those tracks. I eagerly awaited for freight trains to roar by so that classes would stop because the noise was deafening. It was a Friday like so many before. It was Nov. 22, 1963.My seat was located exactly between two large windows. A photograph of President John F. Kennedy hung on the wall between those two windows and directly above my head. I had never thought twice about the president’s official portrait for it hung in so many locations in public buildings and throughout Catholic homes. But my teacher in this public junior high school was a Catholic and proud that a Catholic had finally been elected to the highest office in the land.When Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon in 1960, I was attending the fourth grade. I knew little about politics, but my parents were adamant in their support of Kennedy. My best friend supported Nixon because his parents, both Protestants, favored Nixon. To them, the Catholic Kennedy was as undesirable in office as a Jew or a “Negro,” the term they used to identify African Americans in those days.Kennedy’s election was a milestone in American society. The refreshing young family with their infant children occupying the White House contrasted with the aged Eisenhower couple during the laid back 1950s. John and Jacqueline Kennedy gave hope to the nation, made us feel young and vibrant again in the early 1960s. They brought style and glamour to the White House. They were American role models to emulate who gave us a sense of national pride.That pride in the president drove my father to drag me to see President Kennedy campaign. On a Saturday in October of 1962, during the height of the Cuban missile crisis which only the White House knew at the time, Kennedy came to the Pittsburgh area to campaign for Democrats running for governor and U.S. Senate. I stood three feet from Kennedy as he sat on the trunk of a convertible during the motorcade. So a year later I was shocked for the first time in my life when I heard of Kennedy’s assassination in my classroom.While I sat wishing I was already in my next period class, my English teacher barged into the room and whispered to my teacher. She, in turn, then shouted as the two ran from the room, “The president and governor of Texas have been shot.”I sat there trying to figure out who was the president of Texas. I had never heard of a president of Texas. I concluded that there was no president of Texas. It never occurred to me that she meant President Kennedy and the governor of Texas.Both teachers returned with a radio which frantically blurted that President Kennedy had been shot but could not report on his condition. When the class heard of the shooting, my friend, Bruce Engel, who sat across from me in the second row from the windows, looked up at the president’s photograph above me and joked, “Oh, you went and got shot.” At the time, I could have slapped him.Other teachers entered our room and huddled around the small radio. We students sat quietly as we strained to hear the reports. It was only ten minutes later when I heard, “It’s official. The President of the United States is dead.”My English teacher ran from the room in tears. The other teachers slowly left in silence. When the bell rang to change classes, I headed down the hall for my English class. Nobody spoke in the hallway. It was like a walk through the Twilight Zone. Students walked in a daze without shouting, without laughter, without poking at each other. Only the shuffling of feet and the creaking of the old wooden hallway floor could be heard. For me, only once since that Friday 40 years ago has silence so absolutely dominated the day, and that was after the Sept. 11 attacks when federal workers walked from downtown Washington past my home. Before those attacks, the two moments in American history that we marked our whereabouts were the Pearl Harbor attack and Kennedy’s assassination. Everyone alive on those days remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when the news arrived.Today I am much older than I was on that Friday in junior high school. Our nation is older as well, but not as much in comparison to any individual. And while I continued through high school and Notre Dame and beyond as a young man, I and my fellow Americans lost our youth on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.

Gary Caruso served as a public and legislative affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at hottline@aol.com.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.