J.D. Williams, professor of political science at the University of Utah, remembers Nov. 22, 1963, "as if it were yesterday."
He's not alone. Most of us can recall with uncanny clarity precisely where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the terrible news from Dallas that day 25 years ago Tuesday: President John F. Kennedy was dead, brutally shot to death by a rifle-wielding assassin.The psychologists call it "flashbulb memory" - vivid images burned into our conscious minds that, rather than fading with time, seem to grow more intense. The quarter-century that has passed since that day might as well be a quarter-hour.
Many older Utahns had their first experience with the syndrome on Dec. 7, 1941, when the shocking news came over the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Those too young to remember Pearl Harbor or Kennedy can clearly recall their horror and despair upon hearing of the space shuttle Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986.
But it was the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the youngest man ever elected president and the youngest ever to die in office that is most indelibly seared into the minds of virtually all of us born before 1955. The 1,000 days of the Kennedy administration defined for a whole generation of Americans - Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative - what politics and government could be, perhaps should be.
Twenty-five years later, 21/2 decades of revelations that political leaders - including Kennedy himself - are not immune to human foible and temptation, have not dimmed the legacy of Camelot. We won't let it. We want to believe. We need to.
Today, we remember the Kennedy presidency not as it was - flawed, as all must be - but as we thought it to be at the time. We were younger then. Less jaded, less cynical. Whatever one's age today, Kennedy and Camelot represent a universal childhood when the world was young and all things were possible.
When Kennedy died that morning in Dallas, our childhood died with him.
Williams, now in his 37th year at the U., recalls Nov. 22, 1963, with particular clarity:
"A rather large group of students and faculty were in the main ballroom of the Union Building listening to Edward W. Brooke, the attorney general from Massachusetts (who later was elected to the U.S. Senate). His speech was interrupted by the loudspeaker coming on. Everyone was bothered by the interruption, then the announcement was heard more clearly: `President John F. Kennedy has just been shot in Dallas.'
" `In the face of this catastrophe,' " Williams remembers Brooke saying, " `we clearly must adjourn.' The audience then rushed out of the hall, heading for the nearest TV set for confirmation of the dreadful news."
Williams had seen Kennedy in person twice, once during his 1960 campaign when he gave a speech in Kingsbury Hall and later, as president, when he spoke in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. The grief he felt following the assassination, he recalls, was almost unbearable.
"For me, the next three days were almost non-stop crying. I was glued to the TV set through the Jack Ruby shooting of Oswald, the funeral, the caisson coming down Pennsylvania Avenue. A real hero of mine had fallen."
Williams concedes that by the usual measure of greatness, Kennedy was not a great president. "Nevertheless, for those thousand days we did, in fact, have a peek into Camelot. Rarely in our history have we seen a mind so facile, a sense of humor so delightsome, and a vision of a great America so clear as we experienced in his administration."
-STEVE HALE, a former Deseret News reporter, went out on the street the day of the assassination to take the pulse of the city. The first thing he heard was the ringing of the bells in the Cathedral of the Madeleine on South Temple.
"First thing I saw was an older, black fellow weeping, wiping his cheeks with a handkerchief. Everyone was quiet; there was a shock wave that hit everybody. No one seemed to be shopping, but in ZCMI five or six people stopped to look at a picture of Kennedy, draped with a black ribbon. One lady had tears welling in her eyes. I looked at her and she looked away."
An hour later, Hale saw a knot of boys standing outside Wasatch Elementary School. "One of them kicked a rock with considerable gusto and walked dejectedly away - one of the more eloquent expressions of how people felt that day."
-REP. WAYNE OWENS, D-Utah, was on Sen. Frank E. Moss' staff as a field assistant on Nov. 22. He was in Moss' office in the Kearns Building, when a friend poked his head in and said President Kennedy had been shot. "We had no radio or TV in the office, so I called AP (The Associated Press). The reporter pulled the wire story and read it to us.
"We were stunned because two months earlier he had been in Utah and I had helped arrange his visit," recalled Owens. "I had a chance to spend time with him, watch him for 24 hours, and was incredibly impressed by him."
Like other Utahns, Owens was devastated at the news from Dallas. "I remember going home and sitting in front of the TV with my wife and watching the report. American hadn't had an assassination of a president in 60 years. We didn't think that would ever happen to us, so it was astonishing when it did. It took days to get over the impact, the drama and the trauma."
Owens subsequently worked on Robert Kennedy's staff and then Edward Kennedy's after Robert's assassination in 1968.
Like Williams, Owens agrees Kennedy didn't accomplish much during his time in office.
"He had programs and vision, but he was in a stalemate with Congress. As a result of the shock, and enthronement of him as an instant folk hero, (President Lyndon B.) Johnson was able to get the Civil Rights Act and other social legislation passed. That probably resulted from the dead man's enhanced stature and ideas. He probably became more effective politically in death than when he was alive."
-SEN. ORRIN HATCH, R-Utah, was a new law school graduate that November. He was in the coroner's office in Allegheny County, Pa., when someone ran up and told him the president had been shot and probably killed.
"It really hit me very hard; it was something unbelievable to me," recalled Hatch. "It stunned everyone with whom I made contact; it put a pall over the whole nation, and it was a difficult thing for me personally. At that time I had just changed from a Democrat to Republican, but I admired and supported him as a good citizen should have.
"The public grief over the assassination led us into the volatile '60s and some of the counter cultures that have since been very much criticized. I believe it set the nation back and caused Americans to think the nation was more vulnerable than it really was."
-DALE J. BAIN was assistant news editor at the Deseret News on the day of the shooting. The paper was on deadline when the teletype machines began clacking out what is now described as "the story of the century."
Initially, the reports were vague, confusing. The president had been shot but there was no word on the seriousness of his injuries. Minutes later, the news no one wanted to hear began forming on the yellow teletype paper. That day's edition told the shocking news in a two-column bulletin that ran the length of the page, printed in oversize type.
"I can't think of another happening that moved me as much," recalls Bain, who retired this year as assistant managing editor. "There was hardly a dry eye in the office the day of the funeral. We were all emotionally drained."
For the Deseret News, Nov. 22, 1963, marked the end of an era in another way as well: That day's first edition was the last "extra" the newspaper would ever print. Newsboys even left the downtown area - the usual marketplace for such special editions - and went into the neighborhoods crying "Extra, extra, read all about it!" And people did.
-SANDRA WILKINS, now director of public relations for Primary Children's Medical Center, was teaching a health class at Murray High School on that day 25 years ago.
"One of the students came in and told the class what had happened. There was a very dramatic reaction by the girls and by me as well. It was about the time that prayer in the schools was a big issue and one of the girls wanted to have a prayer.
"We were reluctant because of the controversy. I look back on it now and know it was a very poor decision not to (pray) as a group. But a lot of individual prayers were said."
Two years ago, Wilkins visited the Kennedy Library where she was moved by "a very deep feeling of the philosophical and great leadership that he provided. I know there is a lot of discussion today about his morals, but, essentially, he was a very moral person and provided moral leadership. He had a vision about what the future of this country should be . . . and a wonderful ability to communicate his feelings and make people feel some real commitment to the fine goals and leadership he provided."
-GOV. NORM BANGERTER, was returning home from a construction job in Holladay when he heard the news from Dallas. It had what he describes as a profound impact on him.
"It was sobering to think that someone would kill the president of the United States. It was a very sad time. I felt, however, that the country would be resilient (and) go on in the face of this difficulty. However, it would go on in sadness."
-BETTY HOLBROOK, who, along with her husband, attorney Don Holbrook, has been active for many years in Democratic politics, met Kennedy a few weeks before his death at a Hotel Utah reception following the speech in the Tabernacle attended by Williams. As the president mingled, she whispered in his ear "Can I get an autograph for my boy?" A Secret Service agent took her name and address and two weeks later the original reception invitation was returned with the presidential autograph.
"I almost hated to wash my hands," after shaking hands with the president, Holbrook recalls. "He had an amazing personality. The moment he was there, you felt it."