Sometimes it’s too easy to ask, “Where were you when…?” It’s often harder to answer, “What was it like?”
That’s the question Yahoo News posed to Americans who recall not only John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but remember distinctly the social and cultural milieu of their lives, families and communities in the fall of 1963 and in the context of Kennedy’s Camelot.
While many readers older than 60 did provide us the literal details of where they were when tragedy struck, most offered vivid snapshots of American life in November 1963.
We asked: What was the vibe, feel and personality of your community? What were the big political and economic questions in your life? How did those local issues compare to the questions facing the nation? What were the hurdles, hopes, obstacles and dreams? How have we attained those goals, or failed at meeting those challenges?
In the past couple weeks, we’ve published short first-person accounts from Yahoo readers that described what we remember from that era and the impact 1963 had. Below are some lightly edited excerpts from what they wrote. If you recall the Kennedy years or if you’d like to share how you think the country is different a half-century later, please tell us in the comments.
Fifty years ago, 25-year-old Judi Baller-Fabian sat in a small diner in Washington Square in Belmont, Mass., trying to figure out how to tell a romantic suitor that she wasn’t interested. Furthest from her mind was the president, but the news of Kennedy’s assassination flashed on a TV above the counter. She writes:
I've always thought you could split life into "Before the Assassination" and "After the Assassination" — in every facet of life. In 1963, before the assassination, jobs were not hard to find, and we had never heard of "off-shoring." Jobs to China? Ridiculous!
Before the assassination, most of us were pretty happy with our lives. We didn't know any better. We had a handsome president, a glamorous first lady. As Bostonians, we were wildly proud of our first family. Wasn't everyone? Neither Chet Huntley nor David Brinkley told us differently.
It really was Camelot.
Before the assassination, excitement swirled around us: the Peace Corps, America winning the race to the moon and an inkling of civil rights. We were proud to be Americans and looked forward to good lives. Before the assassination, nobody had heard of Vietnam, and Southeast Asia was just a place on the world map. The possibilities were endless!
And in a single instant, it all came to an end.
Its pages have yellowed, but Jacqueline Horsfall has saved the Nov. 23, 1963, edition of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that reported Kennedy’s death. Horsfall was 15 and living in Fairport, N.Y., a city flush with families who sought lives like TV’s Cleavers. She writes:
The Kennedy first family was our gold standard. A youthful president and his beautiful, cultured wife, two adorable kids. I mirrored Jackie Kennedy by sewing my own version of Lilly Pulitzer shift dresses. I wore lacy headscarves to Mass. The Cuban missile crisis was behind us, and JFK called for peace between the U.S. and Soviet Union. I remember he spoke that summer of how we all inhabit the same planet and breathe the same air.
His assassination hit us hard, as if a family member had been murdered. First, a rash of accidents as motorists heard the news on their car radios and, overcome with grief, drove through red lights and stop signs. My mom insisted I carry a concealed knife when I walked out alone. If the president could be gunned down, what awful thing might happen to a lone girl? The once-cheerful school nuns tearfully urged us to offer up prayers for the first lady.
Five years later, in 1968, I headed to Washington, D.C., for my new job in the Johnson administration. A White House staffer hinted about JFK's infidelities. I didn't believe him.
But now I know that the American Dream so real prior to November 1963 was just that — a lovely teenage dream.
Augustine St. Claire’s tiny Pennsylvania town of Washington drew a visit from Kennedy in the early '60s. The president’s momentous, albeit brief, stop inspired him to join student government and instilled in him a lesson from his mother: “We could never use our skin color as an excuse for not doing our best.” He writes:
As a small 8-year-old kid with no more to me than a pint-sized frame, I muscled my way through the crowd to the front row the see President John F. Kennedy. As his motorcade passed the Washington County Courthouse on Main Street and turned down Beau Street, I saw his face. It glowed when the sunlight illuminated it. He was the president of the people, even the ones who felt disenfranchised by racism. My parents voted for him and believed he could change the world.
In the 1960s, our community was wrestling with racism. My parents did their best to shield us from it, but there were restaurants on the streets President Kennedy drove down that would not serve us as African-Americans. There was a skating rink on Beau Street that allowed African-Americans to skate only on Thursday, and theaters on Main Street where we could only sit in the balcony seats. Our community was divided.
It made an impression on my young mind that this president made a special trip to our small city to reach out to us. When he was assassinated, our household felt that a friend had died.
Susan Durham was 13 when Kennedy was killed. Her family had moved from Orlando, Fla., to Lake Panasoffkee in Sumter County, six months earlier. She writes:
I went to school in Bushnell. Classmates were sweeter than the tea their mamas served — unless we discussed integration. Many expressed outrage over the impending enrollment of African-Americans. The hostility appalled nonracists among us. A naive seventh-grader, freshly elected to the student council, I heard groans when I asked why the "N" word was allowed in our school.
My parents were Republicans in a predominantly Democratic community. The two parties were more aligned back then. Lively debates filled our living room, but no one got nasty — even over the integration issue. Adults discussed JFK's Bay of Pigs failure, his adept management of the Cuban missile crisis, and they questioned whether the privileged president understood average Americans.
A community of low- to middle-income families, we all worked — dads, moms, and kids. We loved football and danced to "Wipe Out," but an anxious current ran through us. Parents lost jobs, tempers flared over finances, and Vietnam moved to the front burner.
On Nov. 22, 1963, our community reeled in shock. Three days later, watching President Kennedy's funeral, grief stabbed deeper when John-John, on his third birthday, saluted his father's casket.
Kennedy visited Fort Worth shortly before his Dallas trip, and Luella Edwards recalls the president humorously mentioning during a speech her high school’s rivalry with a nearby school. Kennedy had that ability to connect with a local audience, she says, even if those voters didn’t back the president’s vision. She writes:
I remember Fort Worth as a working-class city with mostly good, fun-loving people. They were working-class Democrats who supported long-term liberals Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn and Jim Wright in the U.S. House and Senate in 1963. However, I also remember that many of these people, especially the older ones, had strong prejudices against racial, ethnic and religious minorities. But among those of my generation, there seemed to be a movement toward tolerance.
I remember the intense distaste for President Kennedy's catholicism that many of my white, Protestant neighbors and family expressed prior to his election. But I also remember my amazement when many of those people wept at his death.
When I expressed my surprise over her tears, my mother drove home the enormity of his death when she simply said: "But he was the president."
I was in college when John F. Kennedy campaigned for office in Fort Worth. I was inspired and energized by his ideas — in particular that we should work to eliminate poverty, disease, war, tyranny.
Nine-year-old Elyse Brown lived in Jericho, Long Island, in a new suburban neighborhood built upon potato fields and brimming with optimism. Her father, the son of poor Russian immigrants, took to heart the idea that, like Kennedy, he could get ahead in life. So, every day, he put on his suit and took the train to Manhattan for work. That idealism pervaded Brown’s household. She writes:
The North Shore of Long Island was developing into what some considered an affluent area, and my mom relished in that designation. In some ways, I think she fancied herself to be like Jackie Kennedy. She loved her style, clothes and grace. I recall her wearing a Jackie-inspired baby-blue silk suit and pillbox hat for my brother's bar mitzvah in 1962.
Growing up on Long Island was as idyllic as it was insulating. Our world felt protected and pure. Like children should, we played hard. Sledding on local hills in winter and hitting Jones Beach in summer. After school, hours were spent playing kickball till the sunset or taking ballet lessons with Mrs. Schwartz. We enjoyed football games, the Jericho Cider Mill, apple picking and Lollypop Farm. Suburbia was at its leading edge, not quite country and not the city.
As pastoral as life seemed to be, the Kennedy assassination unearthed an emerging consciousness that an America existed outside the confines of my life experience. Changes were on the horizon. I watched, frightened, as my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Reinhardt, cried upon hearing of the Kennedy assassination. As time went on, our sense of impunity was eroded by current events. Hardships and pain existed beyond my tree-lined streets. I was perhaps shrouded by innocence; but began to feel connected to a world that extended beyond the Long Island peninsula.
Sandra Snow, 11 in 1963, grew up in a Michigan farming community in close-knit St. Clair County where residents gathered in times of celebration and tragedy, taking care of neighbors as if they were extended family. She says, “Trouble then seemed smaller.” She writes:
I don't recall it mattering what religion someone practiced until a few days after Kennedy was gone. I knew there had been some discussion about Kennedy's fitness for the job before he had been elected. People had been worried if his allegiance was to the country or to the pope. I was not concerned nor were my parents. But when I went back to the one-room schoolhouse I attended, after the president's funeral and our three days of national mourning, I was shocked to discover that some kids were glad the "dirty thieving Irish Catholic Kennedy was dead." I had never suspected such hatred for a president could exist.
All but one or two of us kids had fathers, and one mother, who worked in the factories, mostly at Pontiac Motors on the assembly line. Those who farmed mostly did it part-time or leased their land to full-time farmers. My father, who had grander ideas, had sold the livestock, torn down fences, and had built a nine-hole public golf course on our 60 acres by then.
The cattle and fences were gone, and strangers walked our former farm to play golf. Kennedy was dead, and I have never trusted a human being the same way as I did before those days came to pass. I lost my innocence on the same day the rest of the country did. I don't think the nation has ever been the same way since then. If the president could be shot, then was anyone safe?