42 years later, I still remember the events on this day in 1963 with great clarity. Our sixth grade teacher at St. Margaret’s, Sr. Mary, was called out of the classroom for a few minutes, and then came back looking upset. We closed our books and began praying the rosary. Something was terribly wrong. A little while later, unexpectedly, an announcement came over the loudspeaker telling us to gather our books and prepare to leave school early. As we trudged through the schoolyard in our customary two-by-two line, a boy behind me whispered, “The President’s been shot.”
President John F. Kennedy had been in office just three and one-half years, but he was already a legend at a very young age. He was the harbinger of the new generation — the first U.S. president born and raised in the 20th Century, a fact that, at that time, was galvanizing. He was just 42 years old when he was elected, another astonishing cultural change in a nation whose presidential images had been much older and more remote. He used the then-new medium of television in stunning ways; his press conferences are still amazing displays of rhetorical power.
Equally significant for some of us, President Kennedy was Catholic, the first Catholic to win election to the presidency, and we felt a certain kinship with him. Some of the sisters at St. Margaret’s had even worn “Kennedy for President” buttons discretely hidden under the wimples they used to wear in their full habits.
We arrived home to a strange sight: the TV was on in the middle of the day, and Mom let us watch without admonishing us to turn it off. President Kennedy was dead. For four days, Americans everywhere gathered around their televisions — still black and white for the most part — to absorb this news and say goodbye as the funeral procession marched through Washington. So it was that as we sat, unbelieving, a few days later, we also saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald in the garage of the Dallas police headquarters. We didn’t know about “reality television” then, but this event, too, signified the dawn of another, darker age in broadcast media.
Debate continues about the true legacy of the Kennedy presidency, so short and unfinished. But on the larger social stage, the Kennedy era signified a cultural change whose effects continue today. On the positive side, that era paved the way for social change that included new legal protections for civil rights and women’s rights, dramatic expansion of educational opportunity, and rapid scientific and technological advances. However, that same era dropped deep roots of fear and violence in many places around the world as the Cold War intensified, nuclear arms proliferated, the Vietnam conflict grew into a war, and domestic unrest intensified. Kennedy’s assassination triggered the long and tragic global saga of public acts of violence and murder for political purposes that continues in the terrorism of this age.
Among President Kennedy’s many inspiring speeches and writings, the famous words from his Inauguration Address still have great meaning: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Four decades later, he still calls us to action for the sake of the nation, a call to service, generosity and charity in all of the communities we influence.