The Day JFK Died
They say that everyone from my generation can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on two occasions: 1) when we landed in the moon and 2) when they heard that JFK had been killed.
Today, I am remembering much of that horrible day, and the events afterwards, when I was six. The day a crazed gunman took the life of JFK, the first president of whom I had recognition.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic president. I was three when he was elected and, still three, when he was inaugurated. I vaguely recall Eisenhower on TV. But the first president I truly recall as actually being THE important man, was JFK.
When JFK was elected in 1960, after some long counting of ballots and such, things my three-year-old mind didn’t really understand, my mother, a devout Irish-Catholic American, shed tears. She said, “He’s a dead man”. So great was the anti-Catholic sentiment in the USA in her generation that, even today, she does not believe we will ever have another Catholic president. When I reminded her that things have changed, that Joe Biden is Vice-president and Catholic, she did smile.
I tell you this, so that you might understand the prejudice that existed, in fact still does, on the part of many Americans towards Catholics. Once, in the late 1980’s, I said something (can’t recall what) to a co-worker I had been friendly with for a few years. We often had lunch together and chatted in the office, as co-workers are apt to do. When he realized I was a Catholic, he took two steps backward. I don’t even think he was aware he did it. Then he said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” He was never friendly to me, again.
In 1963 the town I lived in, a small one, was about 30-minutes east of San Francisco and populated by many transplanted Southerners. In fact, until we moved to San Francisco when I was about nine, I had a southern accent. I fall back into it when ever I am with people from the south. I don’t even realize I am doing it.
Anyway, my father took a cab home the day JFK was murdered. When he got into the cab, the Southerner who was the driver said to him, “Well, we can call ’em (insert n-word), again.” That was the tone of the town at the time. And, a big part of why we moved to the City, later.
But for Catholics in that town it was different. JFK was OUR president. This was the FIRST Catholic president of the United States. All the times the term “papist” was used in a derogatory way, all the times we were beat up by some idiot who thought he was defending his religion by bullying us, for those older than myself, all those things were now negligible. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was president. A Catholic was accepted. It was, indeed, really big stuff. But to me, well, I thought all presidents were Catholic.
So, while we children were bewildered and scared, our parents and the other adults in our lives were devastated.
Sometime in the morning of November 22, 1963, our principal, a nun whose name escapes me, made an announcement that President Kennedy had been shot. Immediately, my first grade class, under the tight control of Sister Mary Julius, began to pray for JFK. Not long afterwards, the principal announced that she was feeding a news report to the classrooms.
I recall listening to the feed, not really understanding anything that was being said. And then, the reporter said, “The president is dead. I repeat, the president is dead. I repeat, the president is dead. I repeat, the president is dead.” Over and over and over again, he said, “I repeat, the president is dead.” Finally, sister cut the feed and said that we should pray for the president, and also for the reporter because he was obviously in shock.
And we did pray. There really wasn’t much else you could do. I remember we had lunch. And I remember after lunch we went to church and prayed. Then we went home.
We prayed because we were so helpless and it was all we could do. Our president was dead. Murdered. Gone. When people die, you pray for them and their families. We were Catholics. We were in Catholic school. He was a Catholic president. So, we prayed.
Sister Mary Julius, in trying to explain all this to fifty (yes, there were 50 first-graders in her charge) said we should pray for John-john and Caroline because they lost their daddy. To this day, I often shed tears at the mere mention of Caroline Kennedy’s name. To many, she is JFK’s daughter, but to me she is the little girl, the same age as myself, who lost her daddy when she was not quite six.
I never felt threatened by the JFK’s death. Sister Mary Julius, for all the times she terrified us with “GOD SEES ME” to be sure we kept quiet, made sure we understood that Lyndon Johnson would be president and all would be fine. I guess that was our civics lesson for the day. We learned what happens when a president dies. Sometimes, I think a lot of what she said was to calm herself. I never saw any of the nuns cry. Just the lay teachers. The nuns kept it together so as not to frighten us.
All this was difficult for a child to comprehend. I had never seen my parents so upset. My mother cried for days. But, mommies sometimes cried over things, I knew that. It concerned me, but it not frighten me.
A day or so after JFK’s death, my father, watching events on TV broke down. He sobbed like I have never seen anyone in my life sob. Through his sobs I could comprehend the words “the son-of-bitch that killed my president”. This frightened me because daddies just didn’t cry. I’d never seen one do it. I never saw my father shed a tear again until my grandfather’s death, and never after that. Nothing frightened me more than my father’s tears. Because I knew something really horrific was happening.
We went to church the day of Kennedy’s funeral. We had Mass, just like on Sunday. We did not have school that day. I recall my paternal grandfather, Greek Orthodox by faith, went to church with us that day.
On the day of JFK’s funeral a man came to the door to sell encyclopedias. A normal sales call. My dad grabbed him by the neck and told him to show some respect. That this was a national day of mourning and, JFK, our president was buried. This was not a day for play or income making. The man ran for his life. I think my dad may have even punched man in the nose, but I don’t recall for sure. Some of the other kids made fun of me because of my dad’s actions. They weren’t Catholic and their parents were Southerners.
These are the memories of a six-year-old when her president is murdered.
Lastly, to Caroline Kennedy, who will probably never see these words, I am sorry you lost your daddy.
This is the page the White House put up on November 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death.