Memories of the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated run deep and long. For our “JFK Revisited” reporting project, Nebraskans share recollections and emotions from that day.
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PHOTO GALLERY: Images of Kennedy and the Kennedy presidency.
VIDEO: Ted Sorensen: Watch extended segments of our 2003 interview with Nebraska native and former Kennedy aide/speech writer Ted Sorensen.
“I remember that we were in the lunchroom and there were just little rumors going around, ‘Have you heard the president was shot?’ Nobody could believe that was true,” said Barb Jacobson (1963: Lincoln High School student). “I can remember taking the bus home that night, and again it was just like nobody could think of anything to say. It was just like everything had just stopped, and there was no sound, no crying. You just felt empty.”
“It was a shock,” said Dave Barnes (1963: elementary school student in Kansas). “We had it on the radio. It was kind of like, ‘That actually happened, didn’t it.’”
David Dyke (1963: medical school student in Omaha) had been home studying for an afternoon class. “I had studied until about 1:30 p.m., and came down from the apartment into the street and the first person I ran into said Kennedy had been assassinated. Totally shocked,” Dyke recalled.
Jerry Smithers (1963: working in a Chicago area clothing store) was getting into his car after finishing a shift. “In that particular instance the world stopped,” Smithers remembered. “Everything just stopped, and I knew everything else had stopped too. I think the hard part is, you don’t know what’s coming next. There’s an emptiness.”
Georgianne Mastera (1963: Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln student) was at her student worker job and heard the news on an office radio. “It was just the most devastating feeling possible when the news was that Kennedy had died,” Mastera said. “Then the next image that comes to my mind is Walter Cronkite and his intonation, and his being able to capture sort of the sorry in the nation.”
Tom Phillips’ (1963: Air Force officer in Wyoming) most profound memory of the day was walking into a local hamburger joint, a usually noisy, lively hang-out for troops. “But when you walked in there it was like the oxygen had been taken out of the building,” Phillips recalled. “Just absolutely somber. The gentleman who owned the restaurant was a young man who was active in Democratic politics in Cheyenne. He was in tears, essentially, and walked around and actually unplugged his jukebox.”
Jacobson remembered watching the events that followed unfold. “I spent days just watching television about his funeral and all the things that were happening,” she said. “I remember watching when (Lee Harvey Oswald) was shot live on television. I can still see that in my mind today.”
Kennedy’s funeral left a lasting, still emotional impression on Dyke. “Black and white, and drums. ‘John-John’ (John F. Kennedy, Jr.) saluting,” he remembered. “Jackie walking down the street in her high heels. The boots turned around in the saddle.”
It was a very different experience for Dorothy Anderson (1963: living in Germany, wife of an Army officer). This was the height of the Cold War, so the unknowns of the assassination created a nerve-wracking environment. “We knew the Germans were panicking,” Anderson said. “They were out burying their silver, etc., under the bushes. They thought the Russians were behind it, and they were coming over to get them for what they had done to the Russians during World War II.”
Carol Connor (1963: college student in Long Island, N.Y.) remembered feeling vulnerable in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and remembered her family being concerned about who might be responsible for the assassination. “When the assassination occurred, what occurred to me was not the individual who shot the president, but who was behind it,” Connor recalled. “So our focus at my house was, ‘Was it Castro? Was it the communists?’”
For all in this group, whether grade school students or young adults at the time, Kennedy’s assassination had permanence in their lives.
“We have that one moment that we really, it made a difference in who we were,” Jacobson said. “I think that tends to define our generation.”
“The loss of innocence is what I remember being perhaps the over-arching theme,” Mastera added.
“I’m struck as we sit here talking amongst ourselves at how present that event is, after 50 years,” Smithers said. “For all of us. It didn’t happen 50 years ago. It wasn’t nearly that long ago. It couldn’t have been.”
“It happened yesterday,” Barnes said.
Other JFK Revisited Stories
- JFK from the perspective of a speech writer and longtime Kennedy aide, Nebraskan Ted Sorensen. (aired Monday, Nov. 11)
- Nebraska historians and political scientists reflect on the Kennedy legacy (aired Tuesday, Nov. 12)
- American Experience, "JFK" - A fresh assessment of Kennedy and his legacy.
- NOVA, "Cold Case JFK" - Can modern forensic science uncover fresh clues about the assassination of JFK? Airs Nov. 13 at 8 p.m. CT on NET1.