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Special to the Advertiser

by David Meyer

Death of JFK changed the world

The knock on the door came in the middle of a nice November Friday afternoon, with some of us semi-dozing through our lessons.

It was a surprise when Sister Julia answered the door of her grade 8 class at St. Clements separate school to see my little sister, Gayle, in the hallway. She was a year away from starting school, leaving me wondering why she was there.

Sister Julia stepped out and returned 30 seconds later, her face white. Mom had sent Gayle to deliver a news bulletin.

“Somebody just shot President Kennedy,” Sister Julia said, near tears.

There was a split second of silence, then a dash for the radio. The day’s lessons were forgotten as broadcasts all over the dial told of events in Dallas scant minutes earlier. When school ended, it was a race home to the television.

Most of us remained glued to it for the next several days as we watched almost around the clock. It is said those days began the concept of modern news coverage. It also made several careers for the reporters covering the assassination, JFK’s funeral, the murder of police officer J.D. Tippet (police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald first for his murder, not Kennedy’s) and then the modern-day public lynching of Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police station by gun-toting bar owner Jack Ruby. The world was saturated with news as people watched in fascination.

It might seem odd that the assassination of a foreign leader would have such an impact on a grade 8 class in Canada, but there were several reasons. First, the United States was a good friend and neighbour and everybody knew of John Kennedy.

But mostly, it was because the president was a phenomenon - even a country away.

The Sisters suggested in 1960 that all of us should pray for Kennedy. They did not speak of the narrowness of his victory over Richard M. Nixon.

And Kennedy was something different than the world was used to seeing. He was young - a big change from the older and greyer politicians. He was eloquent - something not quite as unique as it is today - but, as reporters suggest, he gave good a quote. Many, in fact.

Kennedy had taken office at a unique time. American author Bill Bryson said in his memoir growing up in the 1950s that 1957 was once judged to be the happiest year in American history. By the time Kennedy was touring Dallas to mend political fences in late 1963, America was well away from that happy year.

The civil rights movement was exploding. A number of historians say Kennedy just managed to catch on to its importance in his final year in office and he nearly missed it altogether.

But Kennedy gave people something few have been able to do. He offered hope and dreams. “We need men who can dream of things that never were,” he said in a speech in Ireland five months before he died.

He said it would take hard work and sacrifice, but people adopted his attitude of a “New Frontier.”

Here is one of his comments: “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities.”

He also had wit - a biting sense of humour. He joked he made his younger brother, Bobby, Attorney General because he needed a job.

He said after a few days in office, “When we got into office, the thing that surprised me the most was that things were as bad as we’d been saying they were.”

As for his war record, he answered a reporter’s question about being a hero, by saying, “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” His self-deprecating sense of humour made Kennedy more a man of the people than a politician.

But, as the poet of that age, Bob Dylan, noted then, “The times, they are a-changing.”

Indeed, while the decade of the 1960s was one of change, many historians count its beginning with the shots heard Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, and ending with the resignation of Nixon on Aug. 8, 1974.

It was an era that saw music and fashion changed utterly, war resistance in Vietnam, the hippy movement, the belief people should make love, not war, and the beginning of the drug culture as a normal part of American life, even as it was illegal and governments began a war on drugs. It was a time of excitement and hope for a better future.

Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, coined the term Camelot to describe what she believed was her husband’s legacy.

For certain there were very few critics of the Kennedy presidency for many years.

Today, of course, we are aware of his human faults, from morals similar to those of Slick Willie Clinton, to the very real possibility he might have lost the 1964 election.

Still, he ranks among the most popular of American’s presidents.

Since his death, there have been numerous conspiracy theories about who was involved in his assassination - did Oswald act alone?, etc.

He has been criticized for accelerating the Vietnam War, his belated civil rights record, and his vote buying tactics credited with inspiring Nixon’s 1972 political dirty tricks because he had learned from Kennedy’s win that was how things were done in the presidential race.

For a man in office less than a complete term, his attitude made changes for many of us, but it was his sudden death and the idea of “what might have been” that appears to be his true legacy.



Vol 46 Issue 48


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