Faculty, Staff Recall Kennedy Assassination

Posted: November 21, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron, Jeremy Lasich, Tara Laskowski, and Fran Rensbarger

For those old enough to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which occurred 40 years ago tomorrow, the sights, sounds, and sensations of that day are deeply embedded in their psyches. Almost everyone can recall where they were and what they were doing that day.

Jim Olds, director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, is an expert on memory, and he explains why so many people have such crystal-clear recollections about the assassination. Stressful events cause neurochemicals in the brain to be released, he says, creating and storing vivid mental images.

“Certain memories, because they are potentially culture-changing, such as the assassination of President Kennedy or 9/11, are as amenable to being stored with extra high-fidelity–and by that I mean like a film or a photograph–as are more personal memories directly associated with trauma, such as a car accident or the death of a loved one,” he says. Olds, who was seven years old at the time of the assassination, remembers hearing the announcement of Kennedy’s death when a radio was suddenly switched on, disturbing the quiet of the library where he was reading Curious George.

Barbara Given, Graduate School of Education and the Krasnow Institute, was at home with her one-year-old son when she heard the news on television. “I was absolutely stunned and paced the floor with tears rolling down my face. Once I came to my senses, I called my husband at his work only to learn that he and others had already heard the news. While the time lapse between the two of us learning about the incident must have been quite small, it seemed that I was totally uninformed and in some type of a different world. It was truly a weird feeling,” she says.

Given adds that she believes that the assassination was a turning point in American political life.

“I think this one event was the beginning of a long chain of events that have dramatically and negatively influenced our country. Before the assassination, there was a sense of ‘we can get through almost anything as a nation.’ Afterward, there was national anxiety, only to build with Robert Kennedy’s assassination.

I believe no one was left untouched.

How Johnson took office and his wheeling and dealing style of persuasive politics, the Vietnam War, the shootings at Kent State, and the revelation that McNamara had been so untruthful in matters of the war that caused so many to die or become permanently crippled mentally and/or physically seemed to split the country in many directions.

All this was before the public visually like never before, and we were getting the sordid details of how our country is run for the first time, and it wasn’t pretty. Before, the radio was powerful, but with television, the war and all its ugliness was with us each and every day as were the subsequent events that have shaped our nation into one whereby few ordinary citizens have faith in our governmental institutions, integrity of our leaders, and the way decisions are made.

How did the assassination change the nation? I think the ramifications are too numerous to identify.”

Below is a roundup of memories from George Mason faculty and staff, listed alphabetically, on the JFK assassination. Due to the number of responses received, many comments were edited for brevity.

I was in third grade and our teacher told us. I felt confused and upset. We didn’t think our presidents could be assassinated. Adults were crying, but I don’t remember crying. I don’t think I understood how unbelievable it was, how shocking.

-Kathy Adcock, Database Applications Servers

I was in the sixth grade at St. Mary’s School in Alexandria, Va. The news came from our principal in the form of an announcement over the PA system. As Catholics, we had been very proud of our first Catholic president and it was with a sense of sorrow and disbelief that we learned of his violent death that Friday afternoon. Our teacher led us in a prayer for the repose of his soul, and all studies were put aside as we consoled each other and waited for our parents to come and pick us up. It was very reassuring to be back with my mother–after all, if this could happen to the president and his young family, how safe were the rest of us? We spent the next few days gathered around the television watching the nation grieve and wondering what else might befall us. Looking back, I think our nation’s innocence died that weekend, too.

-Betty Andrews, Student Services Specialist

How well I remember the time and place. Not only Americans were affected by the assassination. I was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland. On the evening of Nov. 22, I was performing in our secondary school operetta. As I was waiting to go onstage there was a flurry of whispers among the offstage cast and crew. The word was passed that Jack has been shot. Everyone was aghast and quite honestly found it difficult to continue with the show. We were in a state of absolute denial, then terror, believing that World War III would surely break out if this horrible thing had happened. No one waited around to socialize after the show. I too hurried home where I found my family glued to the television set. We all went to bed that night with heavy, heavy hearts and preceded by lots of prayers for sanity and peace to prevail.

-Clodagh Bassett, School of Management

John Kennedy Jr. and I were born the same year, so I was just three when JFK was assassinated, but the event is my earliest distinct memory. I remember everything stopping. I remember both my parents and my sister crying. I remember spending much more time in the living room with the television on. I had no memory of JFK as the leader up until that November when his image was suddenly everywhere, all the time.

-David Beach, English

I was in eighth grade in a small, four-room New Hampshire elementary school. The school’s only phone was located just outside the classroom. When it rang, our teacher–and school principal–answered, said “Oh my God” and hung up. He then turned on our classroom TV and simply said that President Kennedy had been shot. We were then bombarded with the images, reports, and replayed film on all the major networks. I asked if it would be possible to relay this information to my parents as they owned and operated the only grocery store in town. That’s when my teacher told us it was my father who had called the school. School was dismissed shortly thereafter and students were outside playing, waiting for the school bus to take them home. Someone showed up across the street and lowered the town’s flag to half-mast. We knew, and understood, at least those of us in the upper grades, just what had happened.

-Mary Buckley, Prince William Library

I was in eighth grade algebra class. What a shock! The announcement came that Kennedy was shot. I started praying. It was a frightening, unsettling experience. JFK’s assassination is the only time in my life that I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. To that point I did not have any experience that rivaled it in terms of arresting my attention and being stamped on my memory.

-Johnese Burtram, Graduate School of Education

I was in fifth grade in Santa Cruz, Calif. Our teacher was called out to the hall and then returned, turned out the lights in the room, and told us to put our heads down on the desk. Everyone knew something was wrong. Then she told us that our president had been killed and that it was okay to be sad. We stayed like that for most of the afternoon. The teachers were crying at times and some parents came and took their kids home.

-Roslyn Cress, Molecular and Microbiology

It was the end of the school day and I was boarding the bus in front of St. Bernard’s High School in Massachusetts, where I was a senior. The bus driver announced it to all of us. My senior yearbook was dedicated to JFK.

-Nancy Gagnon, Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center

The JFK assassination had a worldwide impact. I was in second grade in Ferdoci High School in a city northwest of Iran called Tabriz when I heard the news. They say bad news flies, which is true. I was on the other side of the globe. It was a very sad moment, even for a young kid who had never seen America and did not know much about politics, but who knew JFK and heard a lot about him. We knew him as one of the best presidents of the United States. The main question was “why?” and who or what organization was behind this assassination. Most of my questions were answered this week while watching the two-hour special program on Maryland Public Television about the Kennedy family. It was sad and very informational for everybody.

-Sam Ghandchilar, Enterprise Servers and Operations

I was in the seventh grade in Xenia, Ohio. We were in the middle of our afternoon classes. My teacher was Mr. Paul Boykin, a great big, football-player sized man. He was called out of the room and when he came back in he sat down on a stool in front of the room, put his hands over his face and started crying. Then he told us that President Kennedy had been assassinated. I did not know what assassinated meant, but I knew it wasn’t good. I tapped Dennis Kelly, who sat in front of me, on the shoulder and asked him what assassinated meant. He turned around and said, “He got shot, stupid.” I ran into Dennis again a few years ago and we talked about that day. Dennis remembered it exactly as I did, word for word. I remember looking out the window at the flagpole to see if the flag was at half-mast. It wasn’t and that really bothered me. There was no school again until all the funeral ceremonies were over. We were all glued to the television. It was so sad watching Jackie and her children, especially knowing that the funeral was on John-John’s birthday. The riderless horse, Jackie kneeling down in front of casket, John-John’s salute to his father, his brother Robert and Jackie walking behind the caisson–it was all so, so sad.

-Jan Gouch, Office of the Senior Vice President

I remember that moment like a photograph in the album of my memories. I see myself sitting in my high school biology lab when the announcement came over the PA system that the president had been shot. (I wasn’t told until I got home after school that he had died.) It was a hard suck-in-your-breath moment for everyone. I was naively innocent of violence in the world–as I think most teenagers were in small-town Lynchburg, Va., at that time. We were in the midst of the Cold War, we had seen Khrushchev on the news bang his shoe on the table, and we had survived the Bay of Pigs bluff. But those incidents were surreal. The assassination of President Kennedy was personal. Camelot was blown away and the harsh reality of our world was here to stay.

-Beth Grohnke, Events Managment

I was a ninth grade student and our high school band was preparing to travel to an out of town football game when we learned of JFK’s assassination. Most of the 15-year-olds I was with were in shock–some, in typical teenage fashion, started joking about it (most likely as a defense mechanism). I also recall the hours that my family stayed glued to the television watching all aspects of the funeral.

-Libby Hall, Bachelor of Individualized Studies

On Nov. 22, 1963, I was five years old and attending Mrs. Jennings’ kindergarten in Weldon, N.C. I remember there being some commotion outside the classroom that morning followed by Mrs. Jennings stepping out into the hallway and returning shortly thereafter somewhat upset. We didn’t know why, but found it strange that our parents soon started showing up to take us home before lunch. On the way to the car, my mother told me that the president had been assassinated and that we had to drive across town to pick up my older brother and sisters who were getting out of school early as well. I had no idea what assassinated meant, but couldn’t help but notice how upset it made all of the adults at the school. Later in the car, my mother explained to me that President Kennedy had been shot and was dead. Over the next couple of days, everyone stayed glued to the TV. We watched all of the special reports, we saw Jack Ruby shoot and kill Lee Harvey Oswald on live television, and we sat through whole funeral process. I had never seen the TV on that much. But, the one thing that I’ve always remembered the most about the whole affair was going to Mass for the memorial service held at our church. On that day, the church was packed to such an extreme that we were unable to even get in the door. I’ve thought about that Mass a lot over the years and why everyone from an almost entirely Protestant town had gone to the Catholic church that day. Perhaps they thought that it was the one place they could go to find answers or in some way deal with the tragedy.

-Charlie Hofmann, Database Application Servers

I was coming in from sixth grade gym class on the field when we were met by a bunch of students erupting from the building. A girl I disliked was shouting that the president was shot dead. I didn’t believe her–it was the sort of nasty lie she might tell, I thought–but inside Flower Hill School the loudspeakers were playing the radio broadcast of the news. They said he’d been taken to the hospital, but within a few minutes we knew he was dead. My Girl Scout troop gathered for their usual meeting in the cafeteria, but my mother, the leader, and I were in tears. She ran the meeting anyway, but I took the bus home. We watched TV for three days straight. I remember John-John saluting the casket, and I remember the horse with the reversed stirrups. My generation hadn’t gotten used to being in mourning as a nation yet. We had a lot to learn.

-Julia Holcomb, English

I was working as a service representative for C & P Telephone Company in Keyser, W.V., when the telephone equipment manager from next door came through the door yelling that someone had cut a main cable and that the equipment had locked up. Shortly after, when the news came through that President Kennedy had been shot, we realized the equipment locked up because too many customers had picked up their phones to call someone else with the news, causing a major overload to the system. That evening the sorority I belonged to was decorating the float for the annual Christmas parade and it was so eerie–our hearts were not into it at all. We were so overwhelmed with sadness and disbelief.

-Pat Irvin, Student Accounts Office

My family was stationed in Aschaffenburg, Germany. Several friends and I were going to the movie that night, and as we walked onto the military base, the gate guards asked us if we had heard the president had been shot. Our first reaction was, “Yeah, right,” then total disbelief and shock. Not knowing what to do, we turned around and ran home to our safety and comfort zone.

-Karen Johnson, General Accounting

Freshman biology at Hammond High School in Alexandria, Va., predictably meant boys trying to smear giggling girls with the most disgusting parts of our dissection animals, until the day that the PA system came on in the middle of class. We all stopped in mid-sentence, struck by the unusual nature of an interruption in instruction. When we heard that President Kennedy had been shot and that radio announcers were waiting for word of his condition, the entire school fell silent. The few students in the halls headed for classrooms, seeking comfort, seeking answers. When school ended, there was still no definite word; I learned later that my friends did just what I did–sat stunned through the bus ride, then raced to the radio as we burst through our front doors, explaining the situation to astonished family members as we went. Only moments later, we finally got our answer. At least we got home first.

-Joyce Johnston, English

I was at work at the D.C. Court of General Sessions where I worked as secretary to one of the judges. When the first report came in that the president had been shot, everyone was in complete shock. Then the news came that the president had died. It was unbelievable news.

-Margaret Jones, University Police Department

I had gotten sick at work and was home sleeping when my roommates came in and told me Kennedy was shot. I could not believe it. It did not seem possible that this could happen in 20th century America. It was frightening because there was the possibility that the Russians had engineered the whole thing and the nation was in danger. There were feelings of sadness that such a young person was murdered. There was concern about the continuity of government.

-Mary Linhart, Database Applications Servers

I was a sophomore at Oakcrest High School, Mays Landing, New Jersey. During the afternoon hours, I answered the switchboard in the office as part of my business class training. I received the phone call that President Kennedy had been shot and I was giving the information to the principal. The announcements for the day were about to be made by Mr. Karver, a professional DJ for the local radio station and my English teacher, who had been listening to the radio and heard the same news I had just received. It was his unfortunate duty to have to announce this. He had always been such a fun person, but at that minute he had tears in his eyes and had lost all composure. There was pandemonium through the hallways. Students were crying and there was just a general restlessness in the air. All afternoon activities were canceled and students were bused home immediately. I believe this historical event was when news started to become entertainment and “the people need to know everything” era. For days leading up to the funeral and afterwards, the American people were glued to the TV or radio for every minute detail of this event–provided by reporters. Our society had never before experienced all the details of any event shown in their living room over and over again.

-Sharon Little, DoIT

I was in ninth grade, sitting in about the fifth row of the bleachers in the gym at our fall school talent show. A teacher came in and made the announcement. Of course, we were all sent home in dismay that something like that could happen in our country. On 9/11, those same feelings came back when I heard the Pentagon was hit. I had worked there for three years and felt that it was one of the safest buildings in the world.

-Betsy Luckett, School of Law

In 1963, I was nine years old. I don’t remember all that much about grade school but I do remember being in my seat at St. John of God Catholic School while the nun told us that President Kennedy had been shot. Later on in the day we found out he had indeed been shot and had passed away. Being a kid at the time I was really into TV (black and white in those days) and I remember all programming had turned to reports and theories as to who did it and why. I also clearly remember Jack Ruby popping out of a crowd and killing Lee Harvey Oswald live on national television. I know the Irish put the “fun” in “funeral,” but that week was too much even for this Irishman.

-O’Connor McBride, Physical Plant

My limited memory of JFK’s assassination is that I was seven years old and walked into my house from school to find my mother watching television. I remember this being unusual since she never watched television during the day. She was crying and she tried to explain to me what had happened. I don’t remember understanding what she told me but remember being very frightened by her distress.

-William G. Miller, Physical Plant

I was in Hawaii, in third grade. We were suddenly rushed to the assembly hall. It was a big secret as to why, but I overheard classmates talking about it. I don’t know how they knew. (There were no cell phones then!) I think we lost whatever was left of our innocence.

-Sally Mohle, Johnson Center and Student Unions Operations

I was in Orlando Junior College in Florida just finishing a class when I heard the news that he had been shot. I was at home working in my dad’s upholstery business when the final report came that he died. I saw the shooting by Jack Ruby of Lee Harvey Oswald on television.

I saw Walter Cronkite cry about it. Since JFK was my hero, since he was a senator, I felt I lost a piece of myself. I watched the whole funeral process and it awakened in me a sensitivity I needed to experience. I still have my original newspapers and Kennedy/Johnson campaign buttons and bumper stickers. I was 20 years old at the time.

-Jack Recker, Freedom Center

I was in second grade. There was some commotion among the teachers in the corridor outside the classroom. Our teacher returned to the room and informed the class that the president had been assassinated. It was my seventh birthday. We lined up quietly at the rear of the room for early dismissal. When I arrived at home, my father, who never arrived much before dinnertime, was already at home. It wasn’t until after I spent some time observing my father, as he sat on the couch watching the small black-and-white TV, did I start to understand the gravity of the situation.

-David Reininger, Capitol Connection

I was nine years old when JFK was killed. I lived in a small town north of Tacoma, Wash., called Parkland. I attended fourth grade at Parkland Elementary School and my teacher was Mrs. Anderson. We were lining up to go to lunch when another teacher came in, crying, and whispered something to Mrs. Anderson. Mrs. Anderson gasped and then announced to the class that President Kennedy had been killed. Lunch was very somber and lots of people were crying. When I got home, my mother was crying and watching the little black-and-white TV. We all sat and watched everything. What surprises me is that I don’t remember much of my childhood, but I remember that day very vividly.

-Charlotte Rinderknecht, Learning Support Services

On September 22, 1963, I was working in my office as an associate of a large Washington, D.C., law firm. I had come to be on John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” with dreams of combining law practice with public service. After one of the partners of the firm came in to announce that the president had been shot in Dallas, I left the office and walked to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where hundreds of other people were standing about aimlessly, just like me, waiting for something to happen. “The plane is on the way back with Johnson and Jackie,” a stranger told me. “Jackie is still wearing her bloodstained dress.” Lyndon Johnson did return to Washington that day, although we White House watchers did not see him. Two years later, he sent 500,000 American troops to fight in Vietnam, and my fantasy of “doing good while doing well” ended. I left Washington and law practice, got a job writing about violent politics in Chicago, and joined the anti-war movement. My first book began with a description of JFK’s assassination.

– Richard Rubenstein, Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution

On the day that President Kennedy was assassinated I was standing with two female friends in front of a store on a dirt road in Vientiane, Laos. My family, husband, and four children had been in Laos for 11 months and we were beginning to adjust to the culture and climate and learning the language. Several Lao came out of the store and looked at me and bowed. One young lady with hands clasped gave a short laugh and said something in Lao. I didn’t understand what she said until a young man came out of the store after her and said, “Your president is dead.” I don’t think that in my 74 years of life I have been so surprised not only by the news but in the way the news was given. I originally come from New Bedford, Mass.

-Lorraine Rudowski, College of Nursing and Health Science

I was in third grade. I remember that my parents were very upset and that our whole family watched the funeral procession on TV together. I was pretty young, but it was one of the few times I saw my mother cry. I didn’t fully understand why until 9/11.

-Donna Sadler, Chemistry

I was a freshman at Temple University in Philadelphia, some four months after having completed four years of active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps. On that particular day, I was in my economics tutorial group with a Ph.D. teaching assistant revisiting the previous lecture with our professor on the TV monitor, when Walter Cronkite came on, in tears, announcing what had transpired in Dallas. My commander-in-chief was dead, and with it, the noble, Camelot-inspired, idealistic efforts to change the world for the better. It has all been downhill ever since!

-Dennis Sandole, Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution

I was playing pool in the company day room on a secret Army Nike base outside of Travis Air Force Base in California. We went to ‘Red Alert’ and stayed at that level for weeks.

-Chuck Sterling, Desktop Support Services

I was a ninth grader eating lunch in the cafeteria at Fairfax High School when the announcement came over the PA system that the president had been shot. All that I remember from the rest of that school day was students and teachers crowded around the few TVs we had in the school, some of the students crying and being consoled by classmates, and the school shutting down early. Once I got home, my family and I were glued to CBS and Walter Cronkite for the next several days. In reflecting on the impact of that event on American culture, I’d say that Kennedy’s assassination, and the assassinations of his brother and of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, destroyed interest in politics for a high proportion of the population because they increased fear, and the fear led to greater and greater isolation of public officials from the public. It started a process that, accelerated by Vietnam and Watergate and reinforced by events such as the 2000 voting fiasco, has led to devastatingly low voter turnouts and campaigns run by sound bites and photo opportunities.

-Chris Thaiss, Professor of English

I was in art class in my junior year of college. An announcement was made over the sound system in class that the president had been shot. At first everyone was confused because it wasn’t possible that this could happen in this “day and age.” The news broadcast continued with what news was available as we sat there stunned. In 1963, we were the “young” people that had supported and worked actively to get JFK elected and it hit us even more because we were from Massachusetts and felt a personal connection to JFK and the Kennedys. Class was dismissed, and I went out to my car with my best friend and just sat and listened to the radio until the terrible news came that “President Kennedy died at 1 p.m.” It was not real. This couldn’t happen in the United States. We sat glued to the TV day and night watching Jackie and her children bury JFK. Many of my classmates drove to D.C. to stand in the long lines to view the casket. I still get teary-eyed when I see a “riderless horse” or hear the drums beating. As I watch the television programs this week commemorating his death, it comes alive again and I feel as if we are experiencing it once again.

-Carol Trayers, School of Information Technology and Engineering

I was in French class when the announcement was made that JFK had been shot. All classes were stopped as the few radios in the school were tuned in and information disseminated throughout the school. Once home from school the television was glued to coverage and the family sat around in disbelief.

-Alice Watts, College of Visual and Performing Arts

I was a freshman in college when JFK was shot. I remember vividly that I had just finished a swimming class and was in the women’s locker room when someone burst in with the news. Everything stopped as we stood in stunned silence in our bathing suits.

-Terry Myers Zawacki, University Writing Center

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