Where were you when John F. Kennedy was shot? For Baby Boomers, the answer is usually “at school when an announcement came across the intercom.” Little did the kids know that as shots rang out in Dallas, the world they had come to know would change forever.
JFK and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in Dallas, waiting for the motorcade to begin.
America had emerged from World War II as a superpower, the only nuclear nation, the sole industrial nation unscathed from the devastation that had leveled entire cities throughout Europe and the Far East. Tokyo and Berlin – whose power-hungry dictators had plunged the globe into the most deadly conflict in human history – were smoldering ruins. Germany and Japan’s great factories had been bombed into burnt, twisted metal.
The American general who had led the free world to triumph, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had to decide whether he was a Republican or a Democrat – both parties had offered him the nomination. As a moderate Republican, he took the White House for two terms marked by unprecedented prosperity.
John and Jacqueline Kennedy with their daughter, Caroline.
Then a young U.S. Senator from Massachusetts ushered in a brand-new era the press called Camelot. John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” – then proclaimed that America would go to the moon within the decade.
John F. Kennedy’s inauguration
His shy, beautiful wife remodeled the White House. The President and his photogenic brothers, Bobby and Teddy, played football on the White House lawn.
John, Robert and Edward Kennedy
Then it all crashed on November 22, 1963. A thousand days into his storybook presidency, the youngest-ever commander-in-chief was struck down by a sniper’s bullets during a motorcade in Dallas.
Veteran TV journalist Jack Perkins was 29 years old and having lunch with his boss, NBC News legend David Brinkley, co-anchor of the network’s nightly news. Recalling that day for Beliefnet, Perkins remembers vividly, “he and I dashed from lunch back to the studio where for hours I filtered reports to him to put on the air. In my early years in TV news, one thing he taught me was that the more dramatic the story, the less dramatically it should be told.
“Then, when time came — 6:00 p.m. — for the evening’s regular Huntley-Brinkley Report, here’s how, undramatically, he opened. I still have his script.”
Somberly, Brinkley, who had been on the air non-stop all afternoon, began the news program with: “Good evening. The essential facts are these: President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, Texas. He was shot by a sniper hiding in a building beside his route. He was dead within an hour.”
“Simple declarative sentences,” remembers Perkins, who is now retired and lives with his wife on an island off the coast of Florida, “no ornamentation, his delivery calm, balanced.” Pure David Brinkley.
Across town, “I was working as associate director of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” remembers TV executive Stan Zabka. “We were in camera rehearsal when Nancy, our production assistant, now my wife of almost 50 years, entered the studio visibly upset, uttering the words ‘Dallas’ and ‘the President.’ Soon we learned that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
“All activity in Studio 6B came to a halt. On a television monitor overhead someone had piped in a CBS television feed of Walter Cronkite detailing a running account of the event. No one knew what to say, or if they could believe what they were seeing on the screen. Johnny entered the studio with his brother and our producer and told everyone to go home. The show was cancelled for the day.
Newlyweds Jack and Jackie Kennedy
“I had met Kennedy at a fundraiser at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York that NBC News assigned me to cover. Watching him pace the floor backstage, I remember something that was captivating, something in his demeanor that made me feel he just might be elected and go on to become a good president.
“Unfortunately, after only a thousand days in office, at age 43, he was gunned down. It defied all logic.”
Longtime newsman Larry Nation was an eighth grader eating lunch at Edison Junior High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma “when the principal’s voice over the intercom told us ‘President Kennedy has been shot during a motorcade in Dallas, Texas and is being treated at a hospital.’"
The lunchroom “was stunned into silence,” remembers Nation. “’He’s young and strong. He’s make it,’ someone said.” The kids were “uncharacteristically quiet and we waited for more word, as the teacher just sat stunned and staring out the window.”
Today Kennedy’s shooting is still shrouded in confusion and unanswered questions.
On nationwide TV, the funeral procession paused and the beloved First Lady, dressed in black mourning, whispered to the toddler America called John-John. Three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. solemnly saluted his father’s bier.
John Jr. salutes his father.
And the nation wept.
Kennedy’s dour vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, unceremoniously moved the young widow out of the White House and plunged America into the disastrous Vietnam War – which he micro-managed to unprecedented defeat. Hoping to redeem his legacy, he launched a nobly named but flawed “War on Poverty.” Then America’s hopes were crushed again and again as assassins’ bullets silenced Martin Luther King, then Bobby Kennedy.
America struggled to understand.
“I was only 14 years old when John F. Kennedy was killed,” says bestselling author Joni Eareckson Tada, “but I remember very clearly being called on to answer a question in Spanish class — before I could reply, an announcement came over the school intercom, informing us that President Kennedy had just been assassinated. The message was repeated, and then it clicked off. We were all stunned, and weren’t sure what to do or say. Our Spanish teacher, however, just picked up as though nothing happened, and asked me to answer her question. I proceeded to count from 20 to 0 in Spanish.
“When class was over, the principal let us all go home early. I was incredibly sad, because I liked President Kennedy, even at that young age. In social studies class, we memorized his challenge, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ I rushed home and watched the frightening images on TV with my family, thinking, This doesn’t happen in America… This only happens in countries where there are terrible problems. To me, it was a rude wake-up call that no country is really safe from evil people and their wicked schemes. Kennedy’s assassination ushered in a different era in America: and I often wondered if the rebellion and unrest of young people in the ‘60’s got its start with the death of the President.”
John F. Kennedy
“That afternoon, I was a gawky fifth grader in my favorite class – English – with my favorite teacher, Mr. Davis,” remembers Jane Struck, former editor of Today’s Christian Woman magazine. “He had just asked a boy to recite, but before he could, an office staffer entered our classroom and whispered into Mr. Davis’s ear. Suddenly he was herding us into the gymnasium. There our principal solemnly announced we were dismissed for the day because something had happened to the President.
“When Mom met me at the bus stop, she was in tears. Together we watched on our tiny black-and-white TV as news anchor Walter Cronkite tearfully announced President Kennedy’s death. I’ll never forget how saddened and shaken I felt.”
Newspapers proclaimed the terrible news
College professor Cris Richardson was only a third grader. “My teacher, Mrs. Allbright was playing “Puff the Magic Dragon” on the record player. I was intently listening because this song even today makes me happy and sad. Suddenly someone was knocking frantically on the door. It had to be important – it was the principal. We all can see how upset she is. Although the record was still playing, we began whispering, ‘What is wrong?’
“Mrs. Allbright came back in and turned off the record player. She was crying and sobbing. We were too little and barely understood what she is saying. “The President is dead,’ she told us. We began to cry as well. The bell rang and we slowly walked out the door. I began the short walk home in a tear-dimmed haze. I stopped to cross busy Roosevelt Boulevard. I remember wondering why the cars kept moving so fast. Didn’t they know the President was dead?”
“The call came through the public address system into Mrs. Audetat’s sixth grade classroom,” remembers author Cynthia Ruchti. “I can still hear the collective gasp that sucked the life out of the room when we heard the words, “The president has been shot.” Within the space of those five words, our safe Midwestern small town lost a layer of its innocence. We became part of a shocked country, then a grieving nation when the intercom rasped the words, ‘The president is dead.’ Our teacher sobbed aloud while we 12-year-olds tried to swallow, unable to process the unthinkable. Our studies ground to a halt that day, but in some ways, our education was just beginning.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
“Recently I visited the Texas Schoolbook Depository in Dallas and the site the president was shot,” muses author Dr. Jeffrey Johnson. “To my surprise, deep feelings came bubbling up. With teary eyes, I was reminded how everything rises and falls on leadership. Kennedy, to me, exemplified leadership with conviction – human flaws notwithstanding. He represented the true American ideal of equality, determination, hard work, and justice mixed with mercy. He dreamed big, and Americans believed.”