I was on such a limited budget, working nearly full-time, as a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, that I couldn’t buy all of my first semester books at the very start of the semester. So there I was, in the basement (textbook section) of the UPenn campus book store, during my lunch break on what I remember as a bright fall day that suddenly went all dark.
Standing on line to pay for my books, one minute there was the ubiquitous radio playing in the background and the next it crackled before switching from who knows what they had been playing to an all points announcement. And yes, it was the radio, the only mobile information distribution platform in that faraway time, which brought us the dreadful news.
I don’t remember the announcer or what station the book store played that day, but I remember vividly the near hysterical tone of that announcer’s voice as he just about shouted that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. And then he repeated himself, more calmly, and added what few details he had.
With that first sound of radio crackling, something we’d all been trained as children to recognize as the early warning signal of a disaster, the book store’s sound of a bee hive at maximum buzz gave way to absolute silence. We all listened to the announcer’s words, and then listened again to his calmer repetition. Then more silence. And then the tears, the grief, the wailing sound of a generation whose hopes and dreams for a better world had been assassinated along with President Kennedy.
I don’t remember where I went next, to my next class (but I’m sure that was cancelled), to a friend’s or back to the dorm. We cried for days, not continuously, but I never knew what would set me off. As the story unfolded, and the news coverage was wall to wall (not in today’s terms because no one had even considered 24/7 broadcasting yet), the grief became more profound, deeper, less amenable to explanation.
I lost my mother at 5 1/2, way too young to have understand the magnitude of that loss, but this was on some level much worse than losing a close family member or friend. For an eighteen-year-old, Kennedy represented the best of what America could be. He called on each of us to aim higher, do more, fight for what’s right. Being Massachusetts born and bred until I left for Penn, perhaps I can be forgiven for having rose-colored glasses when it came to the Kennedy family, but my classmates at Penn weren’t so parochial.
For me, Kennedy’s assassination was my political awakening. Civil rights, income inequality, equal opportunity, ending the war in Vietnam, these and many more of what we now call progressive issues (but which I thought of then as simply American issues), issues much bigger than my own needs, captured my attention. From singing protests songs of the era to my own incompetent guitar playing in local coffee houses to registering African-American voters, I found the time for political action even as earning my expenses took more and more time away from my studies.
I gradually came to grips with not having the smarts (really a very special type of smarts) to pursue my ambition of becoming a famous nuclear physicist, and I made peace with not having the money to pursue a full-time MBA at you know where. When my closest friend at Penn, a boy with whom I’d gone all through junior and senior high school, died as a result of a football practice accident at the beginning of our sophomore year, I coped with that very personal loss and the attendant loss of my own sense of immortality. But from that day in November until now, I’ve not been able to put aside my dreams, President Kennedy’s dreams, of a more just, free, and democratic America.
I know that many of my professional colleagues, especially my digital native colleagues, can’t imagine the world in which I grew up, let alone do they have direct memories of Kennedy’s assassination and all that followed. Those who only know me now, as a rather senior lady who moves a lot slower than one must move if you’re going to engage in civil disobedience to protest against your government, would be very surprised to meet the eighteen-year-old me. But however much my body has aged in the last fifty years, my passions for a better America and for doing what’s right even when it’s neither comfortable nor convenient, passions which were crafted in part by Kennedy’s Presidency, have not aged one bit — nor should yours.