Friday, November 22, 2013

The Day JFK Died - 11/22/63

When a friend died a few days ago, I read a lengthy online article about him from the newspaper in the town where I attended college. He had worked as a columnist and assistant editor there for 40 years.

I happened to notice that the paper was collecting stories from readers, asking where we had been on November 22, 1963 when we heard the news that Kennedy had been shot.  Below you will find an expanded version of what I submitted to the paper.

I was a Freshman at Indiana State College in Pennsylvania in the fall of 1963.  (The school would become Indiana University of PA before my 1967 graduation.) That year, I had graduated from high school and had a fun-filled summer.  I was disappointed when my parents would not allow me to go the March on Washington for Civil Rights  (August) where Martin Luther King gave one of his most-impressive speeches. I started college, made new friends in my dorm, and had met and dated several college guys. Most of my classes were rehashes of what I had learned in high school, so I was doing well without having to study much. The fall had remained beautiful and warm until early-November. It seemed like all was well with the world.  

On November 22nd, I had stayed up into the wee hours of the morning  to study for an 8:00 a.m. mid-term exam, so I took a nap before heading to my 3:00 test. I remember  having an odd dream in which the other girls in the dorm were upset because a war had started.  I think someone heard the news on the radio and ran from room to room to announce that Kennedy had been shot. I probably heard the frantic tones and turned them into the dream.  When I woke, my roommate told me that the President was dead. 

My family lived in a highly-Republican suburb of Pittsburgh.  In high school, I was the only student in my class to volunteer to take Kennedy’s side in a social studies' class debate.  Other students had to be assigned to help me.  My friends had teased me on the day before the national election in 1960, because in our school’s mock election, Nixon had won with about 90% of the votes.  

On that November day in 1963 at 2:45, I walked in a stupor  to the English Department building. The campus Oak Grove had been stunning in all it's autumn beauty just weeks earlier, but by the third week of November, the branches were bare and sad-looking. 

The professor had not canceled the exam but gave us the option to take it at another time if we were too upset to concentrate. I decided to stay.  It took my mind off the national tragedy that had unfolded in Dallas, at least for an hour.   

When I graduated from IUP four years later, I honored the memory of JFK by joining the Peace Corps which he had established in 1961. I served in an underdeveloped area of Brazil, living for two years without running water, electricity or a sewage system while I taught English as a foreign language and worked on community development projects. I still consider it the best thing I've ever done.  Returning to Brazil to visit old friends and former students in 2011 came in second. 

On that November day in 1963, the country seemed to have lost its innocense and optimism. However,  I remember Kennedy as an inspiring and witty speaker.  And I will forever honor him as the founder of  the Peace Corps which provided me with the most-rewarding experience of my life and the opportunity to do something important in the world.

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