2013.11.13 remembering President Kennedy 50 years later


Late next week—Friday, Nov. 22, to be precise—marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It’s one of those “Where were you when you heard about it?” events that thankfully don’t occur very often, although one is too many.

Think about the odds for a minute. We’ve had a total of 44 presidents so far, and of the previous 43, eight of them died while in office. Four (William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren Harding and Franklin Roosevelt) died from various illnesses while four more (Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and Kennedy) were assassinated. Nearly 20 percent of our chief executives never made it out of office alive. With that track record, why do so many people want the job?

Luckily, the percentage of presidential deaths in office has been dropping in recent history. Roosevelt has been the only president to die in office of natural causes in the last 90 years. After three president assassinations in 36 years (Lincoln in 1865, Garfield in 1881 and McKinley in 1901), Kennedy has been the only victim in more than a century.

 The assassins of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley are well known to history, but 50 years after his death, conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s demise are still rampant. All I know for sure is that he died before I had an opportunity to see him in person.

A mere lad of seven in 1963, our family went to Washington, D.C., in early November to visit an aunt who lived there at the time. I recall visiting the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, Mount Vernon, Arlington National Cemetery and much more. One of the highlights was visiting the Capitol.

I still remember hearing a speech by senator Wayne Morse of Oregon. Morse was a controversial figure, to say the least. Always willing to filibuster, Morse was first elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1944, then re-elected in 1950. In 1952, he left the party, declaring himself an independent. He later switched again, winning a third term in 1956 as a Democrat. He won a fourth term, again as a Democrat, in 1962. 

 I didn’t know any of his history at the time, of course. My aunt Bernie pointed him out as one of the most famous senators and we listened to him talk—actually, yell was a better way to describe it—about some subject I no longer remember.

What I do remember was him saying something about him not being there to make friends. “Some people may call me names,” he shouted, “but they just roll down my back!” He stretched out the word “roll” to last almost five seconds. He sure was fun to listen to.

We were a bit disappointed when we took the White House tour and heard President Kennedy was out of town. In retrospect, I doubt he made a habit of interrupting tours to say hello to visitors, but maybe he would have made an exception for us. Aunt Bernie said maybe the next time we came to visit he might be available, but a couple of weeks later, the chances of that happening ended forever.

Unlike millions who were in school when they heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination, I happened to be home sick that day. I was sleeping when my mother, who had heard the news on the radio, woke me up.

She told me the President was dead and the governor of Texas had been shot. By then, schools were sending students home early and she suggested we should watch the news on television while we waited for my sister and brothers to get home. 

If I remember correctly, news about the assassination and its aftermath was all that was on television for several days. I don’t recall if we happened to be watching the one network whose cameras caught the murder of assassination suspect Lee Harvey Oswald live, but it was replayed so many times that it didn’t really matter.

My Aunt Bernie moved to St. Louis to join her sisters a few years after the assassination and I’ve never been back to Washington. The chances of meeting a president these days are probably even lower now due to security restrictions. But one thing hasn’t changed in the last 50 years—after half a century of investigation, there’s still no one who can say with certainty who really assassinated President Kennedy.