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60 Years Ago — November 22, 1963

It is my first “where were you when this happened” memory. On November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I was at the University of Michigan, barely 18, away from home for the first time, and in an advanced Spanish literature class I loathed. There was some kind of commotion in the hallway, the professor left the room, and returned shouting, “The President was just killed. Get out of here now.”

My classmates started to cry and quickly left the building, as did I. Remember, there were no cell phones back then and I was far from my dorm. As I made my way there, unable to think of what else to do, I joined the throngs of sobbing students all rushing to get somewhere. Reflecting back, it was strange that we didn’t attempt to comfort one another. Eventually, back at my dorm, I waited my turn for the hall phone and called home, which was where I desperately wanted to be.

My father drove the hour from Oak Park to Ann Arbor to pick me up. As soon as I saw him, I became hysterical. Dealing with emotions wasn’t his strong suit, so he resorted to his comfort zone — a history lecture. Yes, JFK’s assassination was tragic, but he had only been President for three years. Imagine how much worse it was when FDR died. He had been President since 1933, leading the country through the Great Depression and World War II, and elected to an unprecedented four terms. His death in 1945, even though he was only 63, should not have been a shock, as he had been in poor health following the Yalta Conference. But it was, according to Dad, because he had been President for so long.

My father’s words brought me no comfort. He seemed to be telling me I had no right to what I was feeling. I had no experience with death yet, and somehow this loss felt personal. I was grieving and shocked. I know I spent much of the next days glued to the television. By the time I got home, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president aboard Air Force One, with Jackie by his side, wearing that infamous blood-stained pink suit. The police had arrested Lee Harvey Oswald, who had recently started to work at the Texas School Book Depository. In addition to assassinating President Kennedy, he shot and killed Patrolman J. D. Tippit on a Dallas street. All of this violence was new to me.

On Sunday morning, November 24, I was still watching television coverage as Oswald was transferred from police headquarters to the county jail. Live on my tv, I saw Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner, shoot and kill Oswald at point blank range. As the moment played over and over on a loop, I felt a loss of innocence. Assassinations were not part of my world view until then.

The next day, my family and I remained glued to the television for Kennedy’s funeral and burial. It was planned to perfection by Jackie, who was so dignified. Of course, my heart broke to see Caroline and John Jr., such young children suffering such a huge personal loss. I will never forget John-John saluting his father’s casket. Camelot was over, buried with President Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery that Monday.

I didn’t return to school because Thanksgiving was November 28 that year. I have no memory of how my family celebrated the holiday or with whom. Returning to Ann Arbor for the rest of my freshman year, I was a different person — more cynical and primed to become engaged in the anti-war movement when President Johnson escalated things in Vietnam during my sophomore year.

Of course, we will never know what JFK would have done. But the part of me that was young, naïve, and still capable of hero worship and hope, died 60


by Laurie Levy
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