50 years ago today John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, an event no Baby Boomer will ever forget.
My own connection to the event began twenty years later, in 1983. I was nine years old that year and had just started the fourth grade when my Grandfather, a man I loved and idolized, passed away. To say that his death put me in a tailspin is almost an understatement, but sometime in the weeks that followed my Mom gave me a book on JFK. It was just a thin children’s book, full of more myth than fact – I particularly remember one scene where Jack fell in love with Jackie when he first saw her over a dinner table – but it hooked me.
I began to read everything I could about JFK. In retrospect it’s easy to see I was simply substituting one fallen hero (my Grandpa) for another (JFK), but in those dark months it was just about the only joy I remember. Somewhere around that time, and I don’t remember if it was with my knowledge or not – my Mom mailed out two letters about my newfound passion. Just before Christmas, two packages arrived in response.
The first, from Senator Edward Kennedy, included a short mimeographed note of thanks and contained information about both JFK and RFK, as well as two 8x10 black and white photographs, one of Jack, the other of Jackie and his children.
The second package was incredible. It came from the Kennedy Library, and included the following handwritten note from William Johnson, the Chief Archivist.
Inside was more information on JFK and his library, and some items I’ve now forgotten. Here’s one I never have: an original copy of Life Magazine dated November 29, 1963 that chronicled the horrific events of Dallas and its aftermath.
Remember, this was on the cusp of the 20th anniversary of his death. There were books and magazines and television specials galore, and I collected whatever I could. I accumulated a scrapbook of articles from the Milwaukee Journal’s Green Sheet, a few record albums of his speeches, a plaster bust of JFK, book upon book – you name it.
So on the actual anniversary of his assassination (in 1983 it was a Tuesday, if I’m not mistaken) I took this little collection into my school for show and tell, passing it among my classmates. I’d like to say someone was inspired, or even that it was met with boos – either one makes a great story – but I don’t remember, so odds are it was met with quiet tolerance.
Over the years my adoration of JFK waned. The reality didn't quite match up with the legend, and that’s a hard pill to swallow when it was the legend you fell in love with. My politics changed too, and suddenly a New Frontier that mocked Eisenhower’s admirable time in office held much less appeal.
The pendulum has begun to swing full circle, tho’ it will never reach the zeal I had as a child. JFK and I would disagree politically, but not as much as I once thought; his reputation was pushed to the Left by nostalgia and the far more liberal records of his brothers. He was a fiscal conservative and a cautious Hawk, two qualities I find appealing in a candidate. And even if he was as liberal as some people work hard to believe, it would carry a lesson all its own: that you can disagree with someone’s politics while still admiring them as a human being.
Even 50 years on, JFK’s memory continues to inspire this nation. Rest in Peace sir; you earned it.