We don’t get to say we are the “youngest” generation to do something any more. But because May 29th would have been the hundredth birthday of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, we will say it one more time: our generation is the youngest, and last, that consciously knew him. Older baby boomers were in high school, junior high, or elementary school the day he died. Younger boomers were just toddlers, and the very youngest still hadn’t quite been born. One of America’s leading speakers, authors, and experts about the boomer generation, Denver’s Brent Green, has a new book out called Questions of the Spirit. It’s about the nature of loss, and surely for those of us who were around the day the president died, it was a loss we’ll never forget. Brent shares with us an excerpt from the book, a sober reflection about the assassination of JFK, and his lingering impact on the boomer generation.
The disturbing news first came as an oddball ploy. I thought our teacher had invented the story to manipulate my classmates and me into appreciating history as something more than irrelevant facts and dates. He was an imaginative educator and relished making the past come alive for self-absorbed adolescents. I did not stop then to consider how unkind a pedagogical ruse that would be and therefore unacceptable.
So, okay, the president has been shot.
I was sitting in a prefab annex, a temporary classroom, one other way my junior high school coped with a tsunami of Baby Boomers overwhelming facilities. The feeble annex typically felt too hot or cold. On that late November day, I felt chilled and still wore my winter coat inside. Our teacher had been interrupted from his lecture for a secretive conversation outside. He returned momentarily, his shoulders sunken, worry crossing his otherwise composed face. President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas; the president’s status remains unclear. No… this is not a teaching scheme; this is real and irreconcilable.
As chatter crisscrossed the room, he asked for order. In this American History class, he had much to share about the farsighted men who first filled the nation’s highest offices. A young and inspired educator, he wanted us to learn and appreciate and remember. I cannot recall what he told us during those suspenseful minutes following breaking news, but even then, I grasped the irony of an assassination attempt in Dallas while learning about the nation’s Founding Fathers, the majesty and nobility of democratic leadership, the eternal values of fairness and freedom they represented.
Before the period ended, someone again summoned our teacher. Juvenile cynicism also left the room. As minutes passed, it seemed that he had abandoned us, and prattle among students raised unanswered questions and uncommon concerns.
Our teacher returned, this time informing us that President Kennedy had been assassinated. His eyes filled with tears as he tried to steady his emotions, a momentous instant because never had I seen any of my teachers display unbridled sadness, especially a man, especially in the early nineteen sixties. That memory haunts me to this day because back then we thought of our teachers as greater than human—strong, resolute, wise—authority figures, duly feared and respected. Tears had no place in a 1963 classroom.
American History ended, and, dazed and bewildered, I trudged to my art class, overseen by a stern matron who shared little of herself. Unlike my American History teacher, this hardened educator did not outwardly embrace the gravity of the day’s news, but she did allow a small black-and-white television into her classroom, another major break in protocol. She instructed us to work quietly on our assigned art projects while we listened to unraveling news about a catastrophe in Texas. Try to be creative and stay focused on your art projects, she said.
Following my final class on that gray Friday, I raced home to a weekend dominated by television and waking hours spent absorbing the news along with neighborhood playmates. My emotions skittered from fascination to anger and despondency to excitement. Though barely age fourteen, part of me understood that I was witnessing history firsthand, not just learning about it. I watched in real time as nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald—the unexpected stun of a pistol blast and raw astonishment washing over nearby cops and journalists—the only time I have witnessed gun violence play out on television in real time, live, uncensored, and unedited.
A national psychodrama unfolded through broadcast television—where Saturday morning cartoons, western movies, and charming family sitcoms such as Father Knows Best typically filled weekends. But this was an epochal televised experience; this was not make-believe. Kennedy was a great man shot dead while sitting next to his lovely wife dressed gaily in a matching pink dress and pillbox hat.
A long weekend and national day of mourning lingered, and I experienced irreversible loss of a personal hero who had inspired me to think beyond the boundaries of that time and place. His youthfulness, charisma, and active family had become benchmarks for civic engagement, not just theoretical abstractions that we studied in history books.
President John F. Kennedy’s death and its aftermath became intractable memories rendered in black and white. His demise darkened who I was then and inexorably adds shading to this present moment, as today’s “breaking news” on cable television too frequently showcases radical Islamic terrorism and assassinations of random innocent people.
It followed that Baby Boomers changed also. That single day in Dallas destroyed our innocence. One awful death resonates from the past even today. The post-World War II American character has never since been as trusting or respectful of the institutions of government.