One somber day: BYU officials reflect on JFK’s assassination

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    By Michelle Woodbury

    November 22 commemorates the 40th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy”s assassination. So impressionable was this day that people can tell exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the president”s death.

    ***Gov. Olene Walker said she remembers she was at home in the kitchen, pregnant with her sixth child when she heard the news on the television of President Kennedy”s death. Several of BYU”s own recalled the day just as vividly and submitted their memories.

    ***President Cecil Samuelson

    I was a rather newly returned missionary at the time of President John F. Kennedy”s death. I had just entered the classroom of my political science class held in Orson Spencer Hall at the University of Utah when the announcement was made of the president”s death.

    I was in shock, and the class just sat there in quiet, stunned silence. The professor, Dr. Carroll Herd, who had something to say about everything, just sat there looking off into space for several minutes.

    He coughed, said nothing, got up and left the room. Soon, we all followed his lead.

    President Kennedy”s death was clearly a great tragedy for the nation and an important civics lesson for me in the processes of the transfer of power and in the stability of our national system in the face of this unexpected disaster.

    ***Dean Elaine S. Marshall

    School of Nursing

    I have vivid memories of the days surrounding the death of President Kennedy. I was sitting in 9th grade French class at Wahlquist Junior High School in Weber County, Utah. The voice of the assistant principal came over the speaker high on the wall saying that the president had been shot. We heard the chaotic noise of radio voices for what seemed like a long time, then a single voice interrupted that, “President Kennedy is dead.”

    Our entire school was numb. Within a few minutes was lunch break. The school cafeteria was unusually quiet — almost reverent. I saw our principal, Mr. Wyatt, sitting at a lunch table staring ahead and very sad.

    For the next four days, my family spoke in whispers and we made our vigil in front of the television set. My parents cried. On Sunday afternoon, my father moved our … black-and-white TV into the kitchen so we could watch during dinner. I remember that when there was no news programming, classical music from a string quartet was broadcast. We all sensed that the world would not be the same.

    As a young girl, nearly fifteen, I had watched a summer of riots in Alabama and Mississippi, then the assassination of our president, and even the killing of his assassin. These were soon followed by other assassinations and the war in Vietnam. The summer and fall of 1963 changed my world. My childhood and my idea of the world”s innocence were gone.

    ***K. Newell Dayley

    Professor of Music

    Associate Academic Vice President

    Class of 1964

    I learned of the assassination of John F. Kennedy listening to my car radio while traveling between a class on lower campus and one on upper campus as a senior student at BYU. As the report came over the radio, I had to pull to the side of the street and wait a few minutes before proceeding because of an overpowering feeling of sadness and disbelief. The first report of his death was traumatic because of the vigor and popularity of his presidency and an immediate fear that his death might be the work of a foreign government, the beginning of hostilities that might lead to full scale war.

    ***Dean Ned C. Hill

    Marriot School of Management

    I will never forget that beautiful, clear fall afternoon. I was sitting in Mrs. Whittaker”s AP English class at Bountiful High School. A student with tear-filled eyes interrupted our discussion of a Shakespeare play by rushing into the classroom and whispering in urgent tones to Mrs. Whittaker. We all knew something bad had happened. The teacher solemnly announced to us that the president of the United States had been shot while he was riding in a motorcade in Texas. A pall fell over the class. She then excused herself and ventured down to the office to get more information from Mr. Keddington, the principal. When she returned, she was weeping. “President Kennedy has died,” Mrs. Whittaker said quietly. Many students wept openly. School was dismissed for the day.

    I remember the admiration and respect the whole country had for President John F. Kennedy. He was young and dynamic – a strong leader who backed down the Soviet Union in the Cuban Missile Crisis, stood up to communism in Germany and challenged the nation to send a man to the moon. Partisan politics seemed not as evident then as they are now. I sensed that most people truly supported Kennedy because he was the president of our country.

    That afternoon and evening I felt lost, afraid, confused, angry and disheartened – outraged that one lone gunman could change so much in one despicable act of cruelty. Our family watched all the sad reports on television that evening. I tried to express some of my feelings in a poem about the tragedy. It”s appropriately buried in a box somewhere but the school displayed it in a case in the hallway for a while – along with many other expressions Bountiful High students produced of that event.

    ***Dean Van C. Gessel

    College of Humanities

    Professor of Japanese

    Out of respect for my many friends in administration who might be older than I, I will refrain from telling you what grade I was in at the time of the JFK assassination. Suffice it to say that I was still a public school student in Salt Lake City. I was an idealistic young fellow, confident that the youthful, vigorous, visionary Kennedy was going to bring a new wave of optimism to the United States. (Not that we were feeling all that glum in 1960; it”s just that he was really good at stirring up an audience to believe in his dreams for the future of America.)

    I was in the hallway at school, just starting to open up my locker. I think it must have been just after the lunch break, and I was getting some books for my next class. A student came hurrying down the hallway, saying he had just heard the President Kennedy had been shot.

    We weren”t used to regular assassinations and acts of terrorism in 1963. We were feeling rather invulnerable as a nation, especially in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which to us had been a MAJOR victory for our side against the forces of evil. So the rumor that rapidly circulated through the halls about a presidential assassination seemed unreal.

    I went to class – English, with Mr. Kartchner – but everyone was too hyper for us to be able to do anything meaningful. Eventually the principal came over the school”s PA system and announced that, in fact, the president had been shot. A number of students in the class began to cry. The principal dismissed school and asked us to go home to be with our families.

    I walked home, and my mother had the television on and was staring at it, tears in her eyes. I watched in disbelief – it somehow didn”t seem that it could be real. But the unfolding news events, and the obviously shaken news anchors, soon made it clear that this was deathly real.

    Not long after the assassination, I wrote an essay for English class that, with typical adolescent hyperbole, started with the line, “American idealism died on November 22, 1963.”

    Though my political naivete gradually retreated, I still have a hard time watching the Zagruber video of the assassination-it remains painfully etched into my memory, as vivid today as the horrifying images of 9/11.

    ***Dean R. Kent Crookston

    College of Biology and Agriculture

    When President Kennedy was shot I was serving a mission in New Zealand. The news was shared with my companion and me in the evening as we returned to the home of the New Zealand family with whom we took room and board. “Your president has just been killed,” they said, “shot by a gunman.” That was all they said, they were gathered around the radio with the understanding that it was best to just listen.

    I am and was then a Canadian. I believe I felt the impact of the event as solidly as any of the American Elders in our mission. My feeling was of fear for the world, even though I felt secure in such an isolated and politically unimportant little country on the other side of the world. The assassination followed rather closely the Cuban Missile Crisis. Elder Ezra Taft Benson was visiting in our mission about the time of the nuclear showdown between Russia and the U.S. He was then fresh from the higher circles of government, and was probably as familiar with Russian leadership, particularly Mr. Kruschev, as any American at that time. As he spoke to us missionaries about the threat of communism, and the impending nuclear exchange, about the only comfort he could give us was that at least we were about as far away from tumult and radioactive fallout as one could be.

    Immediately prior to my mission I had been in the Canadian army as a civil defense trainee. Our training was to prepare us to be of assistance to our country in the event of a civil disaster, particularly a nuclear one. With the news that President Kennedy had been shot, and not being able to make sense of any of the details coming over the radio, I was much sobered, and very fearful about the future of America and Canada.

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