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Inspired by Kennedy

Gary J. Caruso | Thursday, November 21, 2013

We barely knew John F. Kennedy during his thousand days in office. His noble call asked us to be better people, to do better for others and to seek better for our nation. He told us that we could go to the moon, and we believed him. He was our first sleek, handsome, modern visionary leader who transcended American culture by exuding youth, confidence, grace and charm. He represented everything we strived to be. He gave each of us a dream. His World War II generation saw in Kennedy what they thought of themselves – the best of the best. We were an honorable and proud, yet innocent and naïve populace.
Today, those of us who lived through the assassination look back exactly 50 years to the day. That Nov. 22 evokes memories of our overwhelming nationwide shock and grief that grew into a dark watershed moment of national unity. Nothing would quite be the same again. It was the Pearl Harbor of that era only to be matched by Sept. 11, the type of event that should never assail any lifetime, let alone assault my generation twice. A half-century has yet to damper events so branded in our collective memory that no American alive on that day can ever forget hearing, “It appears that something has happened in the motorcade route. Something is terribly wrong.”
That time ironically mirrors today with American fashion trends sporting tight skinny pants and thick Italian-made black, horn-rimmed glasses. It was an age when we believed what others told us – our government, our employers, our neighbors and especially authoritative CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite who also wore black, horn-rimmed glasses. So we believed the unbelievable when he removed those glasses to wipe a tear as he announced, “The flash, apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Time, some 38 minutes ago.”
My morning began as routinely as any – not unlike today – simply another school day set on the calendar as the Friday before Thanksgiving. Wearing a pale green zipper sweater, skinny pants and black horn-rimmed glasses, I awkwardly blended with fellow seventh-grade nerds at Cecil Junior High School. My group, randomly assigned Section 7-5, ate lunch last. At 1:15 p.m., we climbed three stairwells to our reading comprehension class where I sat in the third seat along the outside wall directly under the portrait of President Kennedy.
My teacher, Mrs. Scarton, a more senior, but unpopular, teacher who married our principal, was a strict disciplinarian. She barely began teaching when someone entered to whisper into her ear. Running from the classroom she yelled, “The president and governor of Texas have just been shot.” In her absence I tried to recollect who was the president of Texas. Texas did not have a president. What was she talking about?
She quickly returned carrying a radio that detailed the assassination attempt as bits trickled from Dallas. My classmate Bruce Engel who sat directly on my right infuriated me with his smart-alecky comment. He looked up at President Kennedy’s portrait above me asking in a snide tone, “Oh, did you go and get yourself shot?”
Mrs. Shearer, my favorite teacher who taught English the following period next door, entered and huddled with other teachers around the radio. When two priests unofficially announced that the president had died, she burst into tears and departed. She, Mrs. Scarton and I were all from immigrant Catholic families who stood politically united to elect the first president from among us – the grandson of Irish-Catholic immigrants – much like African-Americans stand today for President Obama.
Until Kennedy broke the era that routinely barred Catholics from the presidency, newspaper headlines questioned if a Catholic could be loyal to both the pope and our democracy. Critics claimed that JFK would take orders from the Vatican. In fact, surveys showed that fully one-quarter of all Americans flat out would not vote for a Catholic. Despite watching droves of diehard Protestant Democrats abandon Kennedy in 1960, we Catholics proudly rallied politically against anti-Catholic sentiments – from the likes of my classmate Bruce – whose families voted systematically throughout our nation’s history to prevent Catholics from such high office. Now, Kennedy had given his life for that job. In an instant, he was gone, but for us, his death was most shockingly personal because he was one of us. Kennedy was family.
Sitting stunned and mesmerized beneath Kennedy’s portrait, I hung onto every utterance emanating from the radio. Despite being only a 12-year-old, the day’s events personally astounded me because Kennedy had spoken to me the previous year during a campaign visit in our area, unbeknownst to us at the time, amid the Cuban Missile Crisis. I once stood a yard away from him when my father said, “Hi Jack,” and I blurted, “JFK!” Kennedy nodded at me and replied, “Hello son,” as his convertible began to move. That fond memory of his greeting and strikingly chestnut-red hair was now my monument to a moment in time.
Time wearily crawled until finally the bell to change classes rang. Students silently walked zombie-like through the hallways – a uniquely eerie walk only witnessed once afterward when droves of my neighbors trekked home together after the Sept. 11 attacks. My youth died with JFK that day much like my adulthood soured on Sept. 11. Yet, I take heart when oftentimes reminded of Kennedy’s words and inspiration, especially while serving as a lector at St. Matthew’s Cathedral where I march over the exact spot upon which “the remains of President Kennedy lie at a requiem mass” as inscribed in the floor before the alter.
This column exists because of Kennedy. No higher honor could be bestowed upon me than in 50 years from now be here to write a centennial recollection as the last living American to have heard his voice. Like many, I owe my government service career to his influence and call. I developed my quick, sharp wit to imitate his dynamic charm and grace. Perhaps another like Kennedy may someday exude that same energy, but thus far only Kennedy encouraged our nation to feel young, invincible, confident and proud – so proud that we would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship … to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and     public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column  appears every other Friday. Contact him at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.