The reader participation project that I’ve been working on — all about peoples’ memories around the time President John F. Kennedy was assassinated — runs this Sunday.
I think people are going to find it fascinating. We’ve got about 25 stories from people who remember just what they were doing on that autumn Friday afternoon 50 years ago.
I remember my situation. I was eight, a third-grade student at Sacred Heart Elementary School in Rochester. It was near the end of the school day, and my classmates and I were all ready for the weekend. Funny how the anticipation for Saturdays and Sundays kicks in at such an early age.
Sometime around 2 p.m., we received news over the public address system that there had been a shooting in Dallas. I’m not sure if we were notified about the death before we were dismissed, but it was a big deal. I remember clenching my fists at the news, not that there was anything a third-grader could do anything about. We were all sent home, and I think my mother picked us up in the family car. My brother Tim was in the second grade and sister Joanne was in kindergarten.
From school, it was home to living room and television set. It was probably the same scenario in just about every household in the United States. I’m not sure how much the news impressed me at the time; I don’t remember watching a lot of the TV coverage. I remember my family was watching when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald that Sunday afternoon.
I guess people always remember what they were doing when they heard about major events. My late father, Harold J. Wilkin Jr., used to say that Grandma Wilkin was listening to the radio when she learned Pearl Harbor had been attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. “You’re all going to have to go to war,” she said sadly, probably aiming her words at my father — then 20 years old — and Uncle Bill, the second oldest boy at age 17.
People know what they were doing when the tragedy of Sept. 11 occurred in 2001. I’ll bet others can remember their actions on Jan. 28, 1986, when space shuttle Challenger exploded off Central Florida.
The Kennedy and Pearl Harbor news days must have been something. People were waiting for news, any news — and newspapers, radio and TV were the only places to get it. It wasn’t like the social media outlets we have today. There weren’t dozens of cable television and satellite radio stations in operation.
But for some reason, I think people in middle age and above will always remember the Kennedy days. It was just such a shocking, violent attack. The victim was an idealistic president with a young family. The televised shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald that Sunday and the funeral procession on Monday remain parts of the memory.
The newspaper’s “Kennedy Project” is the second time I’ve done this story. The first time was 30 years ago. On Nov. 21, 1983, I was 28, on the Gazette staff as the police reporter. It was a quiet day, and I suggested to City Editor Bob Van Brocklin that I could put together a story about how people remembered what they were doing on the day Kennedy was shot.
It was an easy assignment — everybody I talked to had a quick answer — and we published it on Nov. 22, the 20th anniversary of JFK’s death.
Funny how time can move so quickly.