If you were alive then, and old enough to process what had happened, chances are you know exactly where you were 50 years ago this Friday when you heard the unthinkable news: President John F. Kennedy had been shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.
“I was sitting right there,” said Al Villanueva, pointing to a spot on the floor in the gymnasium at Edgewood Elementary School in south Eugene.
Villanueva, now a music teacher at Churchill High School, was a 7-year-old second-grader participating in a “rainy day recess” on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, when a teacher told the children to take a seat on the gym floor. Then, from a loudspeaker, came the announcement.
A man who meant so much to so many millions, whose youthful idealism and telegenic charm captured much of the nation’s imagination, was suddenly gone. Dead at the age of 46, publicly murdered in cold blood for all the nation to see and absorb.
“That was a horrible, horrible day,” said Selma Gappa of Springfield, who was a seventh-grade teacher at Stevens Park Elementary School in Dallas, just four miles west of where Kennedy was assassinated.
Gappa, 26 at the time and known to her students as Miss Bartlett, had taken a city bus to work that morning, as she did every school day. The bus, as usual, had gone right past the Texas School Book Depository, about 7:30 a.m. or 7:45 a.m.
“We were very excited that the president was coming,” Gappa recalled of what was supposed to be a three-day, whirlwind trip to five Texas cities, orchestrated to help Kennedy boost his image in a large and largely conservative state that he knew would be key to winning re-election in 1964.
Somewhere on the other side of Stevens Park Elementary School on that day that would forever change the nation sat a young girl the same age as Villanueva.
But 7-year-old Therese Miller, who today is 57-year-old Therese Burchell of Eugene, would not learn what happened to the president until her grandfather came to pick her up from school, along with her two older brothers, one of whom, Dennis, was in Gappa’s class.
“The principal was very protective of kids in those days, so she decided not to tell them. Just the teachers and the staff knew,” said Gappa, who had never met Burchell until six days ago. Their shared historical circumstance was revealed through a Register-Guard request for readers to share their memories of where they were and how they were affected when they heard the most publicly traumatic news of their young lives.
Burchell’s grandparents were visiting from Minnesota, “and my brothers and I had the rare treat of getting a ride home from school in grandfather’s car during their two-week stay,” Burchell wrote in an email.
“The day JFK was shot, Grandpa came to pick us up and he was very sad. He told us the president had been killed. I thought he was kidding as my grandpa could be quite a tease. But it was all too true. We came home, and both my mother and grandmother were red-eyed from crying. We were a Catholic family and this event threw the house into mourning.” (Kennedy was the only Catholic ever elected president).
Burchell, who today is a part-time instruction specialist in Lane Community College’s Disability Resources program, paid a visit to Gappa, now 76, who lives in the Camp Creek area with her husband, Robert Gappa. The Gappas moved to Springfield from Dallas in 2000, deciding to retire in the state they fell in love with during a 1998 summer trip.
Burchell and Gappa reminisced about the school they both knew long ago, and their memories of that day and what it did to their city.
“Dallas was just so really destroyed,” said Gappa in her Texas drawl. “It took years to get over it.”
Writing to Jackie
But on this Monday night, Gappa and Burchell had fonder memories to share. Burchell looked at a black-and-white photo of Gappa’s seventh-grade class from the 1963-64 school year and found her brother.
“I think that might be him there,” Burchell said.
“Where?” Gappa said. “Oh, I thought that might be him,” she said, remembering the tall, thin boy with short curly hair. “He was a sweet boy.”
“Where is he now?” Gappa asked.
“He is living his final days in Minneapolis, in hospice,” Burchell said. “He’s dying of lung cancer.”
“Oh, I am so sorry to hear that,” Gappa said.
They talked about what they remembered of the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, west of downtown, where their school was located and where Burchell’s family lived. It was the same part of town where Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin according to several federal investigations, fled after police say he shot the president with a high-powered rifle from a sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time.
Gappa’s mother, Pauline Gant, was a clerk in the Dallas Police Department and saw the police bring Oswald in that day after he was arrested in the shooting death of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit in Oak Cliff, 45 minutes after the assassination of the president.
Gappa had her two classes write sympathy cards to first lady Jackie Kennedy after the tragedy. And she still has both return cards received from the White House, each with “Jacqueline Kennedy” stamped in black etching and the words: “Mrs. Kennedy is deeply appreciative of your sympathy and grateful for your thoughtfulness.”
“The end of innocence”
The youngest man ever elected president, Kennedy was 43 when he took office. Five decades later, the powerful effect of his assassination on a generation of young Americans comes through in the words of one Lane County resident after another.
University of Oregon President Emeritus Dave Frohnmayer was a 23-year-old Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford in England in 1963.
“President Kennedy was the model for our generation’s calling regardless of political affiliation,” Frohnmayer wrote as part of a two-page letter recalling how he heard the news from the “somber tones” of BBC Radio. “And while the dream did not die that day, its most immediate hero had.”
Jim Schmidt of Eugene was an eighth-grader at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic School in Canoga Park, Calif., in 1963.
“At 13, I had not experienced anything so devastating,” Schmidt recalled. “This was worse than a death in the family. This was a death in every family. I think that in a way, many of us, now in our 60s and beyond, are still searching for that president, taken from us far too young.”
Valerie McCasland of Florence was a 21-year-old senior at Niagara University in upstate New York, working in the school’s language lab, when she heard the news.
“He was young, we were young and we wanted to believe in the greatness that he described,” McCasland recalled. “Suddenly, we were without our leader and the fear was great.
“To me, JFK’s death came to be associated with the end of innocence,” she added. “It seemed to be the beginning of one violent act after another — riots, more assassinations, the Vietnam War. We knew our loss was great at the time, but I don’t think any of us realized just how much our country lost that day.”
The historic view
Despite his storybook life and tragic death, his universal charm and inspiring appeal, Kennedy’s 1,036-day presidency is viewed somewhat more skeptically among political historians, said Bill Lunch, a retired Oregon State University political science professor and current analyst for Oregon Public Broadcasting.
“The Kennedy presidency is one that, among historians, is a conflict,” Lunch said. “For people at large, he was a very popular president — right up there with Lincoln and Jefferson. But for historians, it’s much more equivocal.”
Because he died more than a year short of completing his first term, Kennedy wasn’t able to accomplish that much, Lunch said.
He successfully resolved the Cuban missile crisis in the fall of 1962 and introduced what would become historic civil rights legislation during the term of his successor, Lyndon Johnson — but that was about it, Lunch said.
Kennedy tried to pass controversial federal aid for education but was unable to, and that was a “big deal,” Lunch said. There was an enormous need because the system was being flooded with baby boomers, “including me,” said Lunch, who was 15 when Kennedy died.
A story by reporter Adam Clymer on the front page of The New York Times last week, headlined “Textbooks Reassess Kennedy, Putting Camelot Under Siege,” focused on the declining greatness in the eyes of scholars of some presidencies, such as those of JFK, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, as the decades move on.
“In general, the picture has evolved from a charismatic young president who inspired youths around the world to a deeply flawed one whose oratory outstripped his accomplishments,” Clymer wrote. “Averting war in the Cuban missile crisis got less attention and respect. Legislative setbacks and a deepening commitment in Vietnam got more. The Kennedy-era glamour seemed more image than reality.”
Model for a lifetime
Still, there is no disputing that Kennedy was an inspiration to millions. And still is.
“I think he had an impact on my entire generation, in encouraging a life of public service,” said Louise Shimmel of Eugene, who has run the nonprofit Cascades Raptor Center near the base of Spencer Butte since 1990.
Shimmel was just 11 years old when Kennedy gave his inaugural address in January 1961 and uttered the famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” She said she has never forgotten them.
Shimmel, the daughter of a schoolteacher mother and a Stanford professor father, was with her family in Karachi, Pakistan, when they heard about the assassination. Her father was assistant regional representative for the Ford Foundation, doing development work there.
“What I remember most was strangers coming up to me in the street, knowing I was an American, and offering their condolences,” she said.
After graduating from Stanford and getting her MBA at the University of Chicago, Shimmel worked in banks for a few years but that “didn’t do it for me,” she said.
She moved to Eugene in 1983, got a job with FOOD for Lane County, then worked for Willamette Wildlife Rehab before starting the raptor center, which serves as a hospital and rehabilitation center for bald eagles and other wild birds.
“Working for a nonprofit has always been important to me, giving back to the community,” Shimmel said.
Julie Olson of Junction City was a newly married UO junior, working part-time at the Bon Marché in downtown Eugene, when she heard about the assassination.
“Shocked and stunned, I couldn’t wait to get home to my new husband, a UO senior, to console one another and process what that would mean to us in the coming years,” Olson recalled in an email. “A year later, we were inspired by President Kennedy’s vision for our nation and we joined the Peace Corps.”
Circle of life
Fifty years is a long time. Well more than half of America’s 315 million residents today were not alive on Nov. 22, 1963, according to the U.S Census Bureau.
But for those who were, it’s impossible to forget.
“I was in bed at my home,” wrote Betty Williamson, who is now 81 and still lives in the same west Eugene house she did 50 years ago.
“I had been ordered by my doctor to take bed rest. I was expecting my third child and experiencing complications. So she would be full-term, I was told to go to bed and not get up except for two reasons, to eat or go to the bathroom. When I heard the news on TV, I just had to get up and watch the events as they were unfolding.”
Williamson’s daughter, Leslie, was born at Sacred Heart General Hospital on Nov. 25, 1963. “That was the day of JFK’s funeral and John (Kennedy) Jr.’s third birthday,” Williamson noted.
First place award for best feature story in the 2014 Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association “Better Newspaper Contest.”