It is difficult for those of my generation to imagine that the assassination of President Kennedy — which occurred 50 years ago Friday — is ancient history to many Americans.
If you are one of those Americans and you want to know the impact of that day, just ask anyone who was alive then, "Where were you when you heard Kennedy was shot?" They’ll tell you details from that day they can’t recall for any other day in their lives. The only other events that have such a deep hold in our memories are the first moon landing and 9/11.
I asked a few Utahns that question. Here is what they recall:
Olene Walker, former governor — Isn’t it funny how much we can remember from that day? I can tell you what I was wearing and what I was doing. I was wearing a plaid top and I was putting some dishes away in the kitchen and was very pregnant. The TV was on in the background, and I heard the president had been shot. I was shocked. I called family and friends. I guess I was a little naïve. I thought our country was so great. I had never realized that other countries and people didn’t have the same admiration.
Michael Ballam, opera singer — I can remember it as if it were 10 seconds ago. I was 12 years old. I was at Providence Junior High School, and I was coming out of Mrs. Olsen’s music class. The bell had just rung. We were excited because we were being excused early from school because of the deer hunt. I remember Susan McGregor screaming at the top of her lungs as we came down the central stairs, “They’ve killed the president!” She was sobbing and screaming. Instantly, the jubilation of 300 kids stopped as if they just sprayed us with a fire hose. It was completely silent on the bus. We ran to our black-and-white TV sets and didn’t leave them for three days. Everything changed. Life as we knew it was over.
LaVell Edwards, retired BYU football coach — I was an assistant at BYU — my second year there — and I was coming out of the cafeteria and someone came up and told us the president had been shot. I was stunned. It was like I didn’t understand what he said. It was almost incomprehensible. You never heard of anything like that at that time. It took time to sink in what really had happened. It was a sad day. You couldn’t believe it could happen here.
Gary Herbert, governor — I was a junior at Orem High, and I remember getting out of class and hearing some rumblings in the hall — have you heard the president was shot? Then I bumped into a couple of girls who were crying. I realized something tragic had happened, and then I heard the president was dead. As I recall it was a Friday around midday. It was calm and quiet instead of the usual boisterousness. A pall hung over the kids. We were stunned. We had heard about the Lincoln assassination, but this was happening in our time. Being governor, I’ve seen some of those threats we have guys in jail who threatened (me). It’s part of being a celebrity or politician now. Things have changed.
Lily Eskelsen, National Education Association vice president — I was in second grade at Sacred Heart Elementary in Warner Robins, Ga. It was a Catholic school. Here we are sitting in class and the mother superior walks in and whispers something to Sister Claire, and they started to cry. That’s a frightening thing for a little kid. Remember, Kennedy was Catholic; he was our hometown boy. Mother Superior left and Sister Claire turned around and said, “The president has been shot.” We got out of our little desks and knelt on the floor and said the Rosary. Then Mother Superior returned in tears and announced the president had died. It’s burned in my memory this feeling, what does it mean and what happens now and feeling like I wanted my mom. We’re watching this nun who is normally very happy and cheerful and she’s weeping. It was frightening. My mom met us at the bus stop, and she was crying and all of us walked to the house not knowing what to say. My mother took us in the living room and said the Rosary. There was this stunned silence that day.
Dan Jones, pollster and political science professor — I was teaching class at Bountiful High. It was about noon. A young man named Scott Peterson opened the door and said, “Mr. Jones, the president has been shot.” And I said, “Scott, we don’t kid about things like that.” We turned on a TV in class and watched Walter Cronkite say the president had died. It was a very somber thing. I had met President Kennedy when he was campaigning in 1960. I taught night classes at the University of Utah and had a young man named John B. Rice in my class. His father was a contributor to the Kennedys, and they had a reception at their home and I got invited and met JFK. I went to the Tabernacle later and heard him speak. I also went to lunch with Teddy Kennedy, who was in charge of the Rocky Mountain area for his brother’s campaign. So I had some personal connections. It was really hard to hear of the assassination.
Ross Peterson, history professor — I was between classes at Utah State and stopped at a pay phone on the first floor of the Main Building. I called my (fiancé) to see how she was doing. She told me President Kennedy had been shot. I said, “You’re kidding me!” She said, “Why would I do that?” Not many people had TVs in those days. We ran to student center, where they rolled out an old black-and-white TV. We saw them announce the president had died. It was totally silent. People shaking their heads, but not saying anything. The next week was numbing. It was traumatic that this young president, who had a young wife and children, could be shot. It’s strange: I’m teaching about the 1960s now, and I’m teaching this (the assassination).
Jake Garn, former U.S. senator — I heard about it when I was walking to my office. I was on Main Street, between about Second and Third South. I overheard a conversation on the street as I was walking by. The president had been shot. I was shocked. You just don’t anticipate hearing something like that. I had some meetings after that and it was discussed — did you hear what happened? Years later I would serve as a senator with (Kennedy’s) brother Ted.
Gail Miller, businesswoman/philanthropist — I had just finished class at the U. and got on the bus to go to work at the telephone company. Somebody announced it on the bus, and there was this huge gasp. No one could believe it. You couldn’t talk to your co-workers at the telephone company because we all wore headsets, but at break time we talked about it. It took a few days for it to set it. When we got home we were glued to the TV. It was disbelief — how could this be? How could the world be that cruel? Why would someone do it when he was so beloved. I adored him. I thought the world was in good hands.
LaVar Christensen, state legislator — I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Stull’s class. Everything just stopped. The doors opened and they wheeled in a black-and-white TV, and we sat there and watched it. Nothing else mattered. That’s why you remember where you were. It was unprecedented. There was just silence, everyone alone with his thoughts. The very fact that we can remember so vividly that moment tells you the depth of children’s thoughts. A little part of me died that day. My sense of trust and safety — it just never came back.
Pamela Atkinson, community advocate — I was walking across the campus at San Francisco City College and I heard some people talking. The president had been shot. Shivers ran down my spine. It was so quiet; it was eerie. The only sound you heard was crying. Word spread. Strangers were hugging. This tragedy was bringing people together. I just had a shiver run down my back as I flash back to that time. For many years, when I don’t have a camera, I take what I call memory camera shots — I blink my eyes as if I am taking a picture so I can remember it. I did it then. What I see (in that mental photo) is the campus and these small groups of people and everything coming to a standstill and I hear people crying. Then I realize some of that was coming from me and from the people with whom I was standing. It was surreal. The only other time I felt that was 9/11.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]