“Four weeks ago he was here. We saw him; we heard him; and we knew him. He was one of us, for he was our most recent alumnus … Now he is gone.”
Cal Plimpton addressed a grim college community in Johnson Chapel on the evening of Nov. 22. His voice quivered with emotion as he spoke. The brief speech ended with: “Let us stand a moment in silence, to honor him; then let us go and do the work he couldn’t complete.”
JFK’s visit to Amherst a month earlier was exhilarating. The preparations were frantic, and the steps of his schedule were precisely choreographed. The media and the Secret Service swarmed over the campus. Three military helicopters brought Kennedy and his aides to Memorial Field on the morning of Oct. 26. After private meetings with Cal Plimpton and other college officials, the group moved to the old cage for the Convocation. Kennedy’s now-archival speech was breathtaking. Then the motorcade to the Frost Library site, the ground-breaking and it was over. JFK departed and returned to work.
I missed the whole thing. In that era, the entire football team traveled by bus to an off-site hotel in Holyoke on the Friday night before the Saturday homecoming game. Purpose: to escape the chaos and sleeplessness of homecoming weekend. We arrived back at Pratt Field late on Saturday morning. The Frost ceremony ran late, so the stands were empty at the start of the game. Wesleyan scored on the first two possessions — the Darp was “not happy.” The stands filled during the second quarter, and we went on to defeat Wesleyan.
I was raised in Newton, a few miles from JFK’s birthplace in Brookline. Growing up, I never knew that a New England accent existed, let alone that I had one. Geographic mobility was unusual — people generally lived, went to school and worked in the same region as they grew up. Parents, teachers, other adults and peers all spoke the same way. When the JFK campaign went national, and later during his early presidency, the familiar Kennedy diction — quaint and quirky — became an attraction for imitation and good-natured fun-poking.
From the Kennedy presidency I recall his confidence and the subdued hint of a swagger; the stunning and multilingual Jacqueline; young children in the White House; the Kennedy brothers, bearing the identical accent; Catholicism; the family at Hyannisport; Cuba; the Soviet Union; the death of an infant; the contagious wit of televised press conferences. Professor Guttmann was unhappy with JFK’s syntax. “To each question,” grumbled Dr. Guttmann, “he responds: ‘Well, I would say that the answer to that would be this.’”
At 7 p.m. on the evening of Monday, Oct. 22, 1962, we clustered around a black-and-white television — one of the few available on campus — in the basement of Morrow and watched an unfamiliar Kennedy: fatigued, gaunt and haggard. “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” We were worried. The days that followed featured screaming newspaper headlines; the “quarantine” (actually a blockade); threats and counter-threats; the Stevenson stand-off at the United Nations; an impending confrontation at sea. We heard rumors of faculty members departing for refuge in northern Vermont. Finally the crisis resolved (“Khrushchev backs down” bellowed the headlines), and JFK walked away a diplomatic genius and national hero.
On Nov. 22, 1963, I returned to the fourth floor of North after my 11:20 – 12:10 class. In the corridor, an agitated John Swinton King said, “Kennedy’s been shot.” A group of guys crowded around an old radio in Russ Clark’s room. “Is he O.K.?” I asked. There was no news at that point. I went next door to Williston for 12:20 math class with a gentle and revered senior professor, Robert Breusch. Midway through class, the Chapel bells began to toll slowly. In his heavily-accented English, Professor Breusch said, softly, “Well, I think that’s enough.” He set down the chalk.
Jonathan Wolpaw met me at the top of the stairs in North. Tears were in his eyes. “He’s dead.”
How could this happen in the United States, in 1963? A goopy 18-year-old college sophomore, my only visual image of assassination came from grainy decades-old film out of remote European places populated by guys with bushy mustaches wearing top-hats and tails. Because I never thought it was possible, I was unprepared and therefore vulnerable to the shock and horror and hurt.
Angry at my own vulnerability, I pretended not to think about it. With the door to my room closed and locked, I sat down to read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for American Studies 21. Many hours later, I re-emerged, hungry and tired of reading. Somehow I connected with Bob Lewin. Valentine was not an option, and we walked into town. Amherst center was dark and silent. We found an open pizza place, then moved on to Cal’s meeting at Johnson Chapel.
The next morning I took the bus home to Newton. The Harvard-Yale game was postponed. On Sunday morning I went to Catholic mass and returned home in time to see Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television (later, my grandmother asked, “is this bad for the Jews?”). After that, jumbled memories of the drum cadence, somber processions, grim-faced dignitaries in dark clothes, tears and the salute of JFK’s son.
We grudgingly resumed life over the next few weeks, but it felt different. Youth and excitement and optimism were done. Presidential leadership relapsed to what it had been before Kennedy — elderly white Protestant men from southern states. Politics resumed being ponderous and numbing. Still angry at my vulnerability, I took steps to protect myself. I tried to picture any and all possible tragedies, losses and man-made or natural disasters. If such things did happen they would still be horrible, but at least I would not be surprised. To some degree that system has worked.
Amherst undergraduates on campus as young adults in Oct. and Nov. of 1963 now are elderly — all who survive are perilously close to, or have already passed, a birthday with a zero. In ten years we will be fewer in number, less robust and near or beyond age 80. We know how it will go in the years after that. From the Classes of 1964 to 1967, those who live on are among the last to have crossed paths with John F. Kennedy. Four weeks ago he was here … Now he is gone.
[I am grateful for the assistance of Jonathan Wolpaw, Dusty Dowse and John McKenzie]