Everyone who was older than, say, five, on November 22, 1963 has a story that begins, “On the day that Kennedy was shot, I…” Those too young to remember it have filed away Kennedy’s murder in their minds along with other national tragedies: the assassination of President Lincoln, the Hindenburg disaster, Pearl Harbor, the sinking of the Titanic, the San Francisco earthquake.
But the Kennedy assassination was different. And the effect of that weekend in 1963 on the baby boomer generation is still being measured.
When President Lincoln was assassinated, some Americans in the far West didn’t learn the news until months later. In 1963, Americans turned en masse for the first time to their television for breaking news of a national tragedy, and that news was very slow in coming—it seemed like hours of agonized waiting before the official announcement was made that the President was indeed dead, (although the back of his head had been blown off by the second shot, and his wife and his bodyguard knew instantly there was no hope.)
The entire nation gathered in front of their television sets, sat down, and didn’t move from Friday through Sunday as they watched the drama play out in real time, from the shots in Dallas, through the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby, through the funeral procession, with the rider-less horse and three-year-old John John saluting his father’s casket.
Imagine if the Kennedy shooting happened today—hundreds of people in Dallas would have captured it on video via their cell phones—not just Abraham Zapruder, with his 8 millimeter Bell & Howell movie camera and the shaky 486 frames of film that would ultimately ruin his life. The nation did not see the entire 26.6 seconds of the Zapruder film until 1975, and Life Magazine, which bought the rights to it for $150,000, did not show frame #313— Kennedy’s head exploding—out of deference to the family and its readers and because Zapruder insisted it be withheld.
Today (remember the Boston Marathon bombing?) the entire event would be on Facebook and Twitter from dozens of different angles, with all the gore, along with all kinds of crazy theories and misinformation—within seconds of the gunfire.
There was nothing instantaneous about the news in those days. Here’s my Nov. 22, 1963 story: Two months earlier I had moved to Manhattan from California to enter Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Among the 80 grad students who sat in front of their heavy manual typewriters at desks in the J School’s newsroom was Nick Gage, the man I would marry seven years later, but on that Friday I had a date with another young man, who worked for The New York Times, to attend a ball given by the Newswomen’s Club of New York to collect my Anne O’Hare McCormick scholarship, which would help pay for my tuition.
I had left the newsroom early and gone to my dorm room in Johnson Hall to start getting ready, when I heard on the radio “Shots have been fired in the vicinity of the President in Dallas.”
Like many of my fellow J School students I immediately went back to the school, hoping to get more information from the teletype machines in the newsroom—the only way to get breaking news in those days before it was read over the radio. The teletype machines, standing about three feet high, would clatter into life as news bulletins from the Associated Press, UPI and Reuters (they each had a different machine) would be typed on a continuous roll of paper.
We stood around, grim-faced, waiting to learn Kennedy’s fate, tearing off bulletins as they came through (I still have a couple, one of them pictured above.) Not until 2:33 p.m. Eastern Standard Time did the teletype machine make it official. The president was dead.
We all took this as a personal loss. Nick, who has been my husband now for 43 years, had met President Kennedy only three months earlier at the White House, when Kennedy presented him with the top Hearst Award for college journalism—which was how Nick managed to afford grad school.
After the official news, we were all depressed and at a loss for what to do next. Everything had been cancelled. Earlier I had tried to call my date at The New York Times to tell him the ball was cancelled and got screamed at by the man who answered the phone, who yelled, “My god, woman. Don’t you know what has happened? Hang up!”
Finally, as a group, we walked over to a movie theater on Broadway and sat silently through a film. It was “The Haunting of Hill House” starring Julie Harris.
We all went out to the West End Bar after that, and Nick and I spent the rest of the weekend together, devouring the newspapers as succeeding editions came out. Unlike the rest of the nation, we did not have access to a television set (although there must have been one at the J-School.) Nowadays, the students sit down to their computers. The manual typewriters and teletype machines are long gone.
Over the years, when anyone asks us, “How did you two meet?” we take turns telling the story, beginning, “It was the day President Kennedy was shot.”
Three weekends ago, Nick and I were in San Francisco, attending the Elios Foundation’s Hellenic Charity Ball when we started chatting with California Congressman John Garamendi and his wife Patti, who have been married even longer than we have. Turns out that they met the same day we did.
They were both attending the University of California at Berkeley (where I had graduated five months earlier.) He was on the California Golden Bears football team (and an All-America offensive guard), but the game scheduled for that night was cancelled, so John walked over to visit a girl he knew in a sorority house, and she introduced him to a pretty blonde named Patricia.
Like so many of our generation, John and Patti had been inspired by Kennedy’s creation of the Peace Corps. They spent their two-year honeymoon serving in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, teaching local school children that if they could work together, they could achieve anything (including building a bridge). John has devoted his life to legislature creating a pathway to the middle class for poor Americans. Patti has served as the Associate Director of the Peace Corps and arranges the distribution of American food and aid to famine and refugee centers in war zones and developing countries.
Everyone in my generation has a story about how Kennedy’s life and death affected them, and in many cases, the ripple effect is still being felt. For my generation, it was the first time the nation pulled together and mourned together as a family, while the now-outdated medium of television made us participants in the drama.