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State College Remembers the JFK Assassination 50 Years Later

by on November 22, 2013 10:05 AM

Friday marks the 50th Anniversary of John F Kennedy's assassination, one of those awful days that changed the path of history.

In the early 1960's, the country was filled with hope, despite the pressing issues of the time -- a cold war with the Soviet Union, the battle for civil rights, and a conflict in Vietnam.

One of the youngest presidents in American history, Kennedy was a World War II hero, witty, smart and popular. Jack Kennedy and his wife Jackie were as close to royalty as the nation had ever seen.

A time that would come to be known as "Camelot" ended in an instant when Lee Harvey Oswald pulled the trigger. Now, a half-century later, that fateful day in Dallas is still a raw wound in the national consciousness.

People who were alive at the time, remember exactly where they were when they heard the news; JFK was dead.

On Nov. 22, 1963, State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham was a 21-year-old college student, studying abroad. "I was going to school in Vienna, Austria," she recalls. "We were devastated to hear the news on the radio in our  rooming house. That someone would dare to shoot a President of the United  States was almost unbelievable. 

"We had a large paper map of the United States in our room and I remember staying up, searching for news on the radio, while using a sharpie to color the state of Texas black. The next morning we converged on the nearby newspaper stand to get any details from the international edition of all the American newspapers."

Thomas Benson is a professor of rhetoric at Penn State and has studied JFK's speeches. He authored a book titled, Writing JFK: Presidential Rhetoric and the Press in the Bay of Pigs Crisis. He vividly remembers that awful day.

"I was a young professor at State University of New York Buffalo, he says. "I was actually teaching that day on campus. I remember coming back from class and being told that the assassination happened and that within a half-an-hour Kennedy had died.

"My wife was in the hospital at the time, pregnant with our first daughter. She was very sick and I remember driving down Main Street in Buffalo to stay with her, and going into her room and we wept together about this terrible event."

Benson says the assassination left Americans feeling bewildered, "There was the sense that history was deflected, that history got a little hysterical."

It's important to remember that the 1960's were troubling times, and that the charismatic Kennedy was viewed by many as a catalyst for change. His assassination reverberated across a country that was heading into an uncertain future.

Benson points out, "Remember that five years after Kennedy was assassinated, Martin Luther King was killed and then a month after that Robert Kennedy, who would almost certainly have won the democratic nomination for president that summer ... It is hard to let go of the idea that the assassination wasn't just a sad event but it was an event with very big consequences for the United States and maybe the world."

Penn State President Rodney Erickson also remembers. "I was in high school," he says. " It was early on a Friday afternoon and I was in study hall. Word of President Kennedy's assassination spread through the school like wildfire. There was a sense of shock and many students and teachers were crying. 

There was lots of uncertainty and speculation as to who was behind the assassination given the cold war environment, and what it might mean.  All of the (then few) TV networks went to special programming to cover the events in Dallas and Washington as they unfolded.  I vividly remember the coverage of Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office, Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, and President Kennedy's funeral the following week."

Charles Dumas is a professor in Penn State's School of Theatre. But in 1963 he was an 18-year-old African-American Catholic from Chicago, who like many Catholics, felt President Kennedy was "our guy."

"I was on Michigan Avenue when I saw the first news report. it was on television. It was [CBS anchorman] Walter Cronkite. He came on and said the president has been shot."

Dumas remembers watching TV in a bar with dozens of people Black and White. A strong election turnout by Chicago democrats helped propel Kennedy to the white house. Dumas says, "Kennedy was more important in Chicago then he would have been probably in other places. So the grief was, it was tangible. It was people crying, particularly women were crying."

He sees the assassination as an exclamation point on a year that had seen The March on Washington and the church bombing in Birmingham that killed four little girls. Dumas describes the JFK assassination, "like pearl harbor or 9-11".

For Dumas, the assassination became deeply personal. "I had dropped out of school, he says. "I wasn't going to go to college ... It changed my life insofar as I decided that he had given his life for the country, no matter who killed him because we weren't sure, and I wound up joining the civil rights movement with more vigor."

Dumas traveled to Mississippi where he went work as a volunteer helping Blacks register to vote.

Benson, perhaps, sums it up for everyone who lived it, "I remember vividly the day that it happened and that doesn't go away. ... "It left a lingering sense of what might have been."

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Steve Bauer was the Managing Editor of Steve and his wife Trina are longtime area residents. They reside in State College along with a wacky Golden Retriever named Izzy.
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