Word didn’t travel quite as fast in 1963 as it does today. We didn’t have cell phones, there was no Internet and television news was in its infancy.
I didn’t find out President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated until almost 4 hours after the event.
I was a senior at Davidson College in North Carolina and had been studying alone in my dorm room oblivious to news of the historic tragedy in Dallas.
I had an appointment with a friend for a game of handball about 4 o’clock that afternoon, and as we were warming up on the court he casually said, “That’s pretty bad about Kennedy, isn’t it?’
I asked him what he was talking about and he responded with words that left me numb and disbelieving.
“Don’t you know??? He’s dead!”
Stunned and confused, I immediately rushed back to my room and turned on the radio to learn the grim details.
The closest television set was at my fraternity house, and I later I joined friends there to watch the televised images of the inconceivable. The national fabric had been torn asunder and the future was full of fear and doubt.
Classes were held the next morning—a Saturday—as we looked for some normalcy amidst the chaos.
My political science professor grimly walked into the classroom and began reading “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats.
“….things fall apart; the center will not hold,
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…..” He intoned.
“…and what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
When he finished reading he turned without a word and left the classroom.
A gloom had settled across our campus—and in fact the entire nation—as we all tried to deal with the shock of an incomprehensible act and its aftermath. There was a feeling of helplessness. There was little anyone could do except join the audience for the first non-stop live TV coverage of a national tragedy.
For me and 3 fraternity brothers, watching the story unfold on TV wasn’t enough. On Sunday afternoon, we set out for Washington to be there for the funeral.
We drove through the night arriving in the pre dawn hours of Monday, November 25th.
We passed by the U.S. Capitol where thousands of mourners lined the streets waiting to pay their respects to the slain president lying in state in the rotunda.
I will never forget the sight of the endless line of people, bundled against the cold, waiting in the darkness for their opportunity to pass by the casket and say goodbye to their young leader and the hope and promise he represented.
We drove on to St. Matthew’s Cathedral where the funeral mass would be held later that day. The sun was just rising, and we were among the first to arrive.
We waited on the curb outside the cathedral—a front row position for the historic procession that would come hours later.
As the hours passed, the crowd grew, and holding our position became difficult.
When the Secret Service arrived, we lost our front row spot and had to struggle for a vantage point.
We were able to see the procession as it approached and entered St. Matthew’s—the grieving widow, her 2 children, the rest of the Kennedy family, and heads of state with France’s Charles de Gaulle towering over everyone—and of course the heartbreaking salute from little John Kennedy Jr. as his father’s casket was carried into the cathedral.
The television audience had a much better view, and when the doors of the cathedral closed TV viewers were able to watch the service while we were standing in the street with a feeling that our moment had ended.
After the service, as television coverage continued with the procession to Arlington National Cemetery, we were on the way back to Davidson.
We had missed a great deal by not watching all that the networks had to offer, but we had gained something of infinitely more value—the vivid experience of being there.
We had participated in an event of epic historic proportions and took away memories that the passing of time could never dim.